Roger Cohen argues in a recent New York Times column that U.S. “disengagement” has been disastrous for Egypt even while citing facts illustrating that precisely the opposite is true.
Under the title “The Egyptian Disaster”, Cohen writes:
In Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry talked for a long time about Iran. He talked for a long time about Syria. He talked for a very long time about Israel-Palestine. And he had nothing to say about Egypt.
This was a glaring omission. Egypt, home to about a quarter of all Arabs and the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, is in a disastrous state….
Yet, in a speech devoted to rebutting what he called “this disengagement myth” — the notion that a war-weary United States is retreating from the Middle East — Kerry was silent on a nation that is a United States ally, the recipient of about $1.3 billion a year in military aid (some suspended), and the symbol today of the trashing of American hopes for a more inclusive, tolerant and democratic order in the Middle East.
The silence was telling. The Obama administration has been all over the place on Egypt, sticking briefly with Hosni Mubarak, then siding with his ouster, then working hard to establish productive relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then backing the military coup that removed Morsi six months ago (without calling it a coup) and finally arguing, in the words of Kerry last August, that the military headed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was “restoring democracy.”
This “restoration” has in fact involved a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, named a terrorist organization on Dec. 25, and on anyone not bowing to Sisi, whose brutal new order has left well over 1,000 people dead….
Egypt is the most vivid illustration of the American disengagement Kerry sought to rebut….
This Egyptian debacle is a significant strategic failure for the United States, and of course, like red lines that proved not to be so red in Syria, it has sent a message of American retreat.
What Cohen perceives as U.S. policy being “all over the place” isn’t. It is rather very consistent U.S. policy.
The U.S. supported the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years. During the popular uprising to oust him, peaceful protesters were dispersed with tear gas canisters marked “Made in the U.S.A.”. What Cohen means by “siding with his ouster” is that the administration spewed meaningless rhetoric about supporting the protesters’ democratic aspirations and calling for a transition of leadership only after it was already apparent that the U.S.’s local strongman would not be able to hang on to power.
Then the Egyptians voted the wrong way and elected Mohamed Morsi, another outcome that the U.S. had little choice but to go along with by trying to establish “productive relations” with him, meaning ensuring that he would follow orders. He showed promise when he denounced the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which the U.S. was busy trying to overthrow by backing armed rebels. He also for the most part maintained Egypt’s complicity in Israel’s illegal collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough. The U.S. consistently maintained its support for the Egyptian military establishment, including, as Cohen observes, supporting the coup that overthrew Morsi. When the military declared its intention to crackdown violently on demonstrators protesting the coup, the response from the U.S. was to ensure that the $1.3 billion in annual military aid would continue. It wasn’t until after several massacres and 1,000 dead protesters that the U.S. saw fit to scale back the amount of aid in a purely symbolic move intended to distance Washington from the blood in the streets, while continuing over $1 billion in aid to the military junta despite its murderous and oppressive crackdown on opposition forces ad despite it being a violation of U.S. law to finance any government that has taken power through a coup d’etat.
Cohen’s cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, the conclusion supported by the actual facts is that “The Egyptian Disaster” is a consequence not of too much but a total lack of U.S. “disengagement”.
Egypt is not alone, of course. The entire world sure could use a lot more U.S. disengagement. But the high priests of the state religion will always manage to find a way to spin the problems caused by U.S. intervention in the affairs of other nations into a problem of U.S. “retreat” from the world.
Take Syria. This is not unlike how Cohen criticized the U.K. government for heeding the will of its public and refusing to join the U.S. in committing aggression, “the supreme international crime”, against Syria. And the propaganda narrative that the problem in Egypt has been a lack of U.S. engagement is exactly the same propaganda narrative we’ve long witnessed with regard to Syria.
The Times incidentally reported several days after Cohen’s column was published:
The American secretaries of state and defense on Saturday presented an emotional defense of the Obama administration’s engagement in international crises in the face of widespread European and Middle Eastern criticism that the United States was retreating from a leadership role.
Speaking here at the Munich Security Conference, the most important trans-Atlantic security gathering, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed some exasperation with the criticism, rejecting “this narrative which frankly has been pushed by some people who have an interest in trying to suggest that the U.S. is somehow on a different track.” He went through a litany of American involvement in places like Afghanistan, Libya and the Middle East, saying, “I can’t think of a place in the world where we’re retreating.”
Indeed. Which is self-evidently precisely the problem. But you won’t be hearing that from the high priests of the state religion any time soon.