August 16, 2013

With Egypt, Obama caught between pragmatism, ideals

The apparent inconsistency between his pledge to respect the rule of law and his practice in applying it has been evident in his response to the political change in Egypt.

By Scott Wilson / The Washington Post

When he took office, Barack Obama promised a foreign policy that would break sharply in tone and substance from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

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President Barack Obama announces that the U.S. is canceling joint military exercise with Egypt amid violence. He made the statement to the media from his rental vacation home on Martha's Vineyard on Thursday.


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The crisis in Egypt, which has left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured in recent days, has exposed how difficult it has been for President Barack Obama to keep that pledge.

From ignoring the U.S. law that would have cut off military aid to Egypt to tacitly backing the overthrow of its elected government, Obama has veered from the approach he outlined early in his presidency, which emphasized a return to the rule of law in national security policy and firm support for, if not the promotion of, democratic values in the Middle East.

His statement Thursday during a vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. – his first since this week's violence in Egypt began – highlighted his challenge in remaining consistent with those promises while preserving influence with the military-led government now running the most-populous Arab nation. It is the latest example of the tension between Obama's pragmatism and idealism that has shaped much of his foreign policy in office.

Explaining his acceptance of the overthrow last month of Egypt's elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, Obama said "his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians." That is a standard for U.S. support that Obama has never articulated before.

He also acknowledged tacitly that the faith he placed last month in Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who heads Egypt's interim government, is being tested by the violent crackdown underway against Morsi supporters demonstrating in Cairo's streets.

Obama condemned the government assault on a series of opposition camps, calling it a "dangerous path." But the only action he announced Thursday was the cancellation of a joint training exercise planned for next month with Egypt's military — a measured, mostly symbolic show of displeasure that even U.S. officials acknowledged would have little effect.

"We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure," Obama said, adding that it is "tempting" to blame the United States for Egypt's turmoil. "That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future they deserve."

A little more than four years ago Obama, speaking from Cairo University, called for a "new beginning" with the Islamic world, especially with the strategic Arab Middle East.

He urged Middle Eastern autocrats, many backed by the U.S. government for decades, to embrace democratic reform as the best way to ensure long-term prosperity and stability.

A month before that address, Obama outlined at the National Archives his case for reforming the interrogation, detention and other national security policies implemented by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Obama argued that the failure to adhere to the "rule of law" in operating the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in employing interrogation methods he has called torture, "alienate us in the world." American values and American security policy, he said, should not be in conflict.

Obama has by his own admission, however, fallen short of adopting the policies and principles he outlined, most notably in his inability so far to close Guantanamo Bay.

Questions surrounding the legality of American drone operations, the reach of the National Security Agency's vast efforts to collect communications records, and the rise in the prosecution of leakers and journalists have recently forced Obama to respond and defend his record in adhering to the promise of his national security policy.

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