Lost in Egypt

President Obama has no influence with Egypt’s generals. It’s time the administration admits it—and speaks a language the generals understand.

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi stand among debris during a violent crackdown by security forces on a pro-Morsi sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adweya Mosque on Aug. 14, 2013, in Cairo.

Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images

This article has been updated with new information as of Thursday morning.

The bloody crackdown began early Wednesday morning, as Egyptian riot police and plainclothes officers began their assault on the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members who defied the government’s warnings to end their protests in support of the ousted former president, Mohammed Morsi. Security forces showed no restraint as they stormed the two massive sit-ins: Bulldozers cleared makeshift barriers, while snipers took aim at protesters and plumes of tear gas engulfed the streets. Hospitals were quickly overrun with the dead and wounded, and eyewitness reports described hallways slick with blood and lines of corpses with gunshot wounds to the head, neck, and chest. By the end of the siege, nearly 300 people were reported dead—including women and children. As of this morning, the death toll had climbed to 525, making Wednesday’s crackdown the deadliest day since the former dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.

It being August, the duty of offering the Obama administration’s first reaction to the Egyptian regime’s brutal attack fell to deputy press secretary Josh Earnest. The White House condemned the violence (as if it were being committed equally by both sides), asked that the military and security forces show restraint (while corpses were being counted), promised to hold the interim government accountable (as if the interim government were anything more than a fig leaf for the military), and suggested that an “inclusive process” would be best (that must not have occurred to the snipers as they reloaded their guns). In other words, it was the same talking points the administration has produced each time Egypt has erupted in a spasm of violence this summer. It is hard to imagine a more feckless response than the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with Egypt’s generals.

When asked whether the administration might want to revise its position on whether the July 3 ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president was a coup, Earnest replied, “It is not in the interests of the United States to make that determination.” That answer echoed State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s statement on July 26 that “we have determined legally that we do not need to make a determination.” In other words, we aren’t going to say and you can’t make us.

On Thursday morning, President Obama felt compelled to interrupt his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to make a statement. He continued to steer clear of calling Morsi’s ouster a coup, eliding over it by referring to the “military’s intervention several weeks ago.” The price the president was willing to exact on Egypt’s generals was circumspect: That morning the Obama administration had informed Egyptian authorities that the U.S. military would not participate in the biennial joint military exercise known as Bright Star. The news probably didn’t register a ripple with the generals. Was it even likely that the Pentagon would still be conducting joint drills with the Egyptian military so soon after it had brutally crushed its own citizens?   

Diplomacy is all about engaging in convenient fictions. The fictions that we tell one another to make the world run smoothly, though, should hold some promise of outcomes that aren’t pure fantasy.

Since Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pushed Morsi aside, the administration has contorted itself to describe the events in Egypt as being anything other than the coup it was—at least until the Obama foreign policy team decided it didn’t need to decide one way or the other. The logic was clear: According to U.S. law, calling it a “coup” could force the White House to cut off the $1.5 billion in aid it hands Egypt each year. Like any administration would, Obama’s team wanted to avoid suspending a key part of its relationship with the powers that be in Cairo. The United States may have provided Egypt with more than $40 billion since the Camp David Accords, but this was no time to suspend the payments. Indeed, so the thinking goes, the influence that this money buys Washington may be more vital now than ever.

And that’s a perfectly defensible view—if there was any evidence that the money, relationships, and years of cooperation bought us anything at all. In fact, there is nothing to suggest that Sisi cares one whit about what he hears from Washington, no matter how many times Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rings him. The administration warned Sisi about ousting Morsi undemocratically; he did it anyway. The White House urged the generals to compromise with Morsi’s supporters; they rounded up and arrested Muslim Brotherhood leaders, leveled trumped-up charges against Morsi, and consistently referred to their political opponents as “terrorists.” Secretary of State John Kerry, against all evidence, claimed that “the military did not take over” and that “they were restoring democracy.” Meanwhile, the military-run regime has repeatedly fired on and killed protesters. The Obama administration may be the only group left that still treats the interim civilian government as if it were anything more than a front for the military. Far from leading Egypt’s democratic transition, Sisi seems more intent on consolidating his control, crushing the Brotherhood, and when asked, thumbing his nose at the United States.

And although U.S. officials repeatedly urged caution in how the regime approached handling these two massive sit-ins—including sending Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to Cairo for talks—it clearly had no purchase with the generals. In fact, Egypt’s military leaders gave the Pentagon no official notice that they intended to rout the protesters Wednesday morning.     

Obama’s critics have been quick to try to pin the chaos in Egypt on him and his foreign policy team. It’s ridiculous to think that President Obama—or any U.S. president for that matter—can dictate the events in a country as large and complicated as Egypt. We consistently overstate the United States’ ability to influence events on the ground, at least in any way that is well thought out and intentional. Our old Cold War debates over “who lost China” or some other country should be confined to the Cold War. Presidents no longer win or lose big strategic states in some zero-sum contest for global supremacy.

But the fact that the United States can’t force Egypt’s generals to resolve their political problems peacefully doesn’t absolve the Obama administration either. The White House may not have sufficient leverage to force the outcomes it would prefer, but when it sees a supposed partner acting with such a complete disregard for human life, it should not be a party to their crimes. For six weeks, the administration has shielded Egypt’s generals from criticism and accountability as they have consistently refused to take steps to defuse the crisis. Indeed, in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Sisi is more responsible than anyone for inflaming the Egyptian public and dimming any hopes of national reconciliation. The most the administration has mustered in response is a weak order delaying the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets—a minor inconvenience, not a stick.

The administration shouldn’t mindlessly maintain the same approach to the Egyptian military that has served both sides since 1979. Washington’s billions in aid to Egypt were originally offered to help ensure Israel’s defense. In the intervening years, Egypt’s armed forces, which were never particularly formidable, have progressively deteriorated as its military brass has grown more interested in running its business empire than defending the country’s borders. Egypt’s tanks are now more likely to be found in Cairo’s streets than charging across the Sinai, where they would be met by a vastly superior Israeli military. The strategic costs for suspending Egypt’s aid just aren’t what they once were. 

The day before Wednesday’s bloody crackdown, Egyptian authorities revealed the new slate of provincial governors who would be appointed to office. Nineteen of the 25 new governors are generals. Of the remaining six, two are Mubarak-era judges who are considered extremely hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood. If the regime-inspired violence didn’t make it clear enough, these (and similar) designs should: Egypt’s generals are cementing a new brand of authoritarianism. Late on Wednesday, the regime declared a monthlong state of emergency, restoring to the military the power it wielded for decades under Mubarak. How long does the United States want to assist them diplomatically and financially?

Of course, there is a good chance that suspending aid to Egypt’s generals would have no effect. After all, the sums that Gulf kingdoms like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have offered Egypt—upward of $12 billion in grants and loans—dwarfs American largesse. Or maybe a move to suspend aid would lead Sisi to rethink his position—to consider that perhaps his deep ties to the U.S. military are worth more than crushing his opponents in the street. But even if such an outcome is unlikely, it’d still signal to the region that the United States is not about to underwrite another Middle Eastern dictatorship—a mistake we continued to make for decades. And it’d be liberating for the Obama administration, too: They could begin to make policy for the Egypt that exists, not the one that they dream of.