Two major factors lead to my conclusion that America should not be intervening in any significant way in the current terrible situation in Egypt.
First, I cannot think of any form of intervention that would do any good. Second, I cannot find in that country today any major group of actors who deserves to benefit from our intervention. The military is engaged in the mass murder of its own citizens, and the suggestion that some of the murdered, or of their associates, were contemplating terrorism at a future time, does not come close to justifying the butchery. The brutal murder of dozens of people already in custody recalls the worst days of the 20th century.
Their opponents, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, appear somewhat sympathetic as victims, but the response of many of them, unrestrained by their leaders, of murdering Coptic Christians is no more morally acceptable than what the military is doing. In fact, the Coptic Christians are the one group of victims in that country who do have a credible claim on our help.
Armed multinational intervention to prevent genocide should be the one exception we are prepared to make — if it can be done effectively — to the principle that we will not seek by military force to bring order out of internal chaos in any country.
We have not made that distinction sufficiently clear in debating when America should use force. We have a superb military, and it is unparalleled in its ability to protect people in one country from an invasion by another. Bill Clinton successfully protected the people of Bosnia and Croatia from the more heavily armed Serbs. George H.W. Bush was right — and I was wrong — to go to the aid of Kuwait when it was invaded by Iraq. But efforts to intervene internally in a country whose problem is not an outside attacking force, but the willingness of its own citizens to kill each other, present an insoluble problem. We cannot create coherent or even mutually tolerant societies where the will does not exist domestically.
No outside force caused this problem in Egypt. No outside force can resolve it. To emphasize the critical distinction between external and internal violence, when Bill Clinton protected Bosnia and Croatia, he was able to withdraw our Air Force knowing that in each country, governments existed that were capable of functioning. George H.W. Bush protected the Kuwaitis from Saddam Hussein, then withdrew and let Kuwait continue to govern itself.
But when we are talking about terrible internal violence, pitting a substantial part of a country in murderous warfare against the other, intervention is an endless and ultimately fruitless process. Iraq is the example here. We overthrew Saddam, but unlike in Kuwait, the replacement has been continued bloodshed and disorder.
Recognizing the inefficacy of intervention when the troubles are wholly internal to a particular country is an important correction to those American politicians who blame our country for the fact that Egyptians are still murdering each other. From the rise of Hitler through the demise of Communism in 1990, America had a responsibility to protect others in the world from the threats to freedom that those two regimes represented, although decreasingly so in the case of Communists over time. Today, America has neither the responsibility nor the ability to protect people in various countries from their own refusal to stop killing each other. Years ago, people on the right accused liberals of following a “blame America first” policy, taking responsibility for ills elsewhere in the world. The current examples of this are Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain insisting that we are somehow partially responsible for the chaos in Egypt.
Nor should we cut off our military aid at this point. No American decision to cut off military aid would deter the generals from their determination to wage war on their internal opponents.
That aid is payment on a contract made among Egypt, Israel, and the U.S. in 1979 to end hostilities. Every Egyptian government since 1979 has lived up to its commitment to maintain peace with Israel. If Israel comes to doubt the durability of that commitment, there is no chance of any Israeli government taking the further risks necessary for an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. That is why we continued the flow of money despite the generally dismal record of all the Egyptian governments on human rights since then. And it is why we should continue to do so.
Ending the aid would undercut John Kerry’s great work on the peace process, while doing nothing to restrain the Egyptian military, given its conviction that it is in an existential war with the Islamists.
The use of the phrase “silver lining” is far too light-hearted to be appropriate in this great tragedy, but there is one positive lesson we should draw from what is happening now in Egypt. There are very real limits to what America or any other outside nation can accomplish in a situation of violent internal turmoil.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts. You can follow him on Twitter: