In May 2011, when the promise of the Arab Spring was still fresh and exhilarating, President Barack Obama went to the State Department to proclaim an important reorientation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. For decades, America had defined its interests in utilitarian terms: regional stability, countering terrorism and nuclear proliferation (and, in the Cold War years, Soviet influence), defending Israel’s security, assuring the free flow of oil and other commerce. That often meant alliances of convenience with authoritarians.
“But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore,” the president said. The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya had affirmed “that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable.”
Without renouncing our commitment to those old interests, the president embraced a supplementary set of “core principles”: supporting universal rights, encouraging political and economic reforms, opposing violence and oppression.
“Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest,” he said. “Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”
In the excruciating test that Egypt has become, the president has largely failed to live up to his own eloquently articulated standard. In the two years since his speech — and most shamefully in the eight weeks since the army’s coup — America has seemed not just cautious (caution is good) but timid and indecisive, reactive and shortsighted, stranded between our professed commitment to change and our fear of chaos. One of the administration’s most acute critics, Vali Nasr of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, goes so far as to suggest that U.S. policy is, whether by design or inertia, coming full circle: back to a pre-Arab Spring, Islamophobic, order-at-all-costs policy that puts us in the cynical company of Saudi Arabia and Russia. Is it any wonder that the generals in Egypt feel they can get away with murder — or, for that matter, that Syria’s Assad thinks he can call our bluff and poison his people with impunity?
It has become the conventional wisdom in Washington that the U.S. has no “leverage” in Egypt. That is at best an excuse for not trying very hard, at worst a self—fulfilling prophecy. Of course, “leverage” does not mean that supplying a few F-16 fighter planes buys you the compliance of a foreign army. (Witness Pakistan.) And, of course, Egypt’s fate is, and must be, in Egyptian hands. But we have serious strategic interests in a democratic Egypt, as the president himself asserted with such fervor, and we have influence. We should have used our influence earlier. We can and should use it now.
During the last great democratic opening, when the Soviet Union lost its grip, the states that were newly liberated did not transform themselves unaided from Communist vassals into model democracies. The U.S. and Western Europe offered infusions of money, expertise and, just as important, a new status: the prospect, if the novice democracies met certain tests, of membership in the great clubs of civilized nations, NATO and the European Union. It took years, and not all of the former Soviet republics have made the transition, but we helped midwife some thriving new democracies.
I get that this is different. Egypt is not Poland, Europe’s economy is not as robust as it was then, and Americans have lost their appetite for overseas engagement. There is no Middle East equivalent of NATO or the EU. And there is a gloomy sense that Egypt may already be in a kind of death spiral.
But with a little leadership the U.S. could have mobilized a united Western front, embraced the standards Obama laid out in 2011, and offered Egypt’s factions incentives to stay on a path toward political reconciliation and economic growth. There was a halfhearted effort led by France in 2011 to create a sort of collective support system for Arab Spring democracy; the so—called Deauville Partnership never got much beyond the stage of rhetoric. I’m told a more ambitious proposal for a concerted Arab Spring initiative was debated within the Obama administration in 2012, but was rejected because it might have been a distraction from Obama’s all-about-the-middle-class re-election campaign.
It is late for Egypt, but maybe not too late. The president could still join forces with European allies, some of which seem more willing than we are to stand up to the generals. Europe has pledged $6.7 billion to Egypt, and the U.S. gives about $1.5 billion, most of it military. Imagine if the West suspended all that aid and deposited it into a kind of trust fund, to be disbursed to help Egypt’s recovery if it kept on a course away from violent repression and intolerance and toward inclusion and the rule of law.
You will hear several arguments for continuing to supply aid to the military regime, in spite of the slaughter in the streets, in spite of the generals’ apparent intention to disenfranchise not only the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that won the first free elections, but, dissenters of any stripe. The money, we are told, keeps the lines of communication open. It helps assure adherence to the Camp David accords and cooperation against terrorists. We get an E-ZPass through the Suez Canal and automatic permission for our military aircraft to transit the region. If we stop our aid, the Saudis and other emirates will just replace it.
There is something to each of these worries, but less than meets the eye. Egypt’s rulers behave out of self-interest. They cooperate with the U.S. — and with Israel — against terrorists, because they fear terrorists, a mutual concern that has only become more acute with the alarming rise of extremist attacks in Sinai.
One real risk of suspending aid is that the Egyptians who most share our values — the more secular, more moderate young Egyptians who deplore the Muslim Brotherhood and seem to support the military coup — will feel that we have abandoned them. This is an intensely nationalistic moment in Egyptian history and a popular backlash against America is a real worry in the short run. But the truth is, the Egyptian moderates already blame us — for standing by while the Morsi presidency played Islamist winner-take-all. In the short run, we are not going to be popular in Egypt.
There is a strong moral argument and a strong legal argument for refusing to bless the military’s repression, but there is also a persuasive pragmatic reason. The current course is, in the president’s phrase, not sustainable.
“The behavior of the Egyptian military is driving the country farther down the path of instability,” said Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “And it’s going to make Egypt less able to cooperate with us on counterterror and other regional security concerns because it will be more enmeshed in its own domestic strife.”
“We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests,” the president told CNN last week, speaking of his options in Egypt and Syria. He might start by going back and reading his own speech.
Bill Keller is the former editor of The New York Times.