August 19, 2013

David Rohde: U.S. offers feckless response to Egypt's avoidable massacre

Tepid rationalizations that the United States has "limited leverage" in Egypt or that the Arab Spring is "failing" do not change a basic fact: a U.S.-funded "ally" has carried out one of the largest massacres of protesters since the 1989 assault on Tiananmen Square.

It is time for Obama to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. Ending assistance will not curb the behavior of Egypt's increasingly autocratic military ruler, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nor will it ease that country's political divide or reduce anti-Americanism. But it will say that the United States actually stands for basic international principles.

Wednesday's killing of 638 people, the death of 50 more Friday and recent terrorist attacks in the Middle East point to an alarming trend for the Obama White House: Its drone and surveillance-centric approach to counterterrorism is failing. A grim reality is emerging. George W. Bush's invasion-centric method of countering militancy failed. And so is Obama's cautious, middle-of-the-road approach.

From massacres in Cairo to prison breaks across the region, the United States is more hated and less secure. At the same time, al-Qaida affiliates are gaining fighters, propaganda victories and recruiting tools.

The message the White House sent to young Islamists in Egypt last week was clear: What jihadists have been telling you about American hypocrisy for years is true. Democratic norms apply to everyone but you. Participating in elections is pointless. Violence is the route to power. Wherever he is hiding in the mountains of Pakistan, Ayman al Zawahiri is likely pleased.

After golfing for five hours Wednesday and having drinks with a campaign donor, Obama announced Thursday morning that the United States was cancelling a military exercise with the Egyptian military and immediately went golfing again. There was no announcement that the administration would cut off the $1.3 billion in annual American aid to Egypt, most of it military.

The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces," Obama said. "We deplore violence against civilians."

In a portion of his statement that bordered on lecturing, Obama said it was the responsibility of Egyptian to decide their future. He is correct. But that does not absolve the United States -- the Egyptian military's largest Western backer -- from flatly condemning a coup and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators.

The administration must stop trying to be the opposite of the Bush administration. Speaking boldly about core international principles is not the equivalent of invading Iraq. Consistency is vital.

In Egypt, a false equivalence should not be drawn between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Deposed President Mohammed Morsi  was not inclusive and ran the government terribly, but he did not kill hundreds of demonstrators.

The White House deserves credit for dispatching Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to Cairo to try to strike a compromise. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently traveled to Egypt as well. Working with European and Arab diplomats, American officials warned Egypt's military ruler against a crackdown. So did Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yet the military carried out the crackdown anyway. My Reuters colleague Paul Taylor reported Wednesday that the Muslim Brotherhood had accepted an international plan to defuse the crisis but the Egyptian military rejected it. As Joshua Hersh of The New Yorker wrote Wednesday from Cairo, this is a "catastrophe of choice" by Egypt's generals.

It is one thing to be unable to control the police state re-emerging in Egypt. It is another to provide $1.3 billion in aid.

The administration's response to the killing is an enormous mistake on the global stage. The real issue is not trying to placate Egypt's generals. It is the perception of the United States among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. If Islamist political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, abide by political norms they should be allowed to participate in politics. Violently repressing them will not work.

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