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

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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 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.

Obama declined to designate the Egyptian military's overthrow of Morsi as a "coup," evoking the same semantic avoidance employed by the Bush administration after then-President Hugo Chavez was briefly deposed in 2002. Where Chavez was a populist irritant to Bush, Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, presented his own challenges to Obama, who last year declined to call him an ally. He has never called for Morsi's return to office.

Speaking Thursday, Obama said that given "our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we've sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people."

"But," he added, "our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back."

Obama announced he is canceling "Bright Star," a joint military exercise that the United States has not held with Egypt since before longtime president Hosni Mubarak's resignation in 2011. Obama left the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt in place.

"I don't think anyone in the government thinks that certainly the cancellation of Bright Star is going to change actions on the ground," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters Thursday.

"However, just given the events of the last 36 hours, this did impact our decision making about aid, and we'll continue to review."

Obama's refusal to apply the coup law, which would automatically suspend military aid, has angered allies on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees State Department operations, called on Obama to cut the aid in compliance with the law.

"While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy," Leahy said in a statement.

At a time when rich Persian Gulf states with a fear of the region's rising Islamic politics are sending billions of dollars to support Egypt's military government, the U.S. military aid is relatively small.

That said, Egypt's government receives a measure of international credibility through the financial connection, and U.S. officials still believe, despite the recent violence, that it provides a measure of leverage with Sissi and the others in charge.

After Obama delivered his comments, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with Sissi, nominally Egypt's defense minister. In a statement, Hagel said he told Sissi that the Pentagon will "continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt."

"But I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our long-standing defense cooperation at risk," Hagel said.

Obama, too, said Egyptian aid is under review. Reflecting the conclusion that he and his senior advisers have made regarding Egypt and the American ability to shape events there, Obama called for patience that will have to extend beyond his term.

"Democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years," Obama said, "but sometimes in generations."

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