Foreign Policy

09.13.12

Obama's Foolish Embrace of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Mitt Romney has received much (deserved) criticism for his maladroit comments on the 9/11 embassy attacks.

But you know what? There is a critique to be made of the Obama administration's approach to Islamism, especially in Egypt - and it doesn't require anyone to hurl false charges that the president "sympathizes" with the killers of Americans.

The critique is this:

The Obama administration has staked its foreign policy on the assumption that the best way to deal with radical Islam is by engaging with radical Islam, thus splitting the men of violence from the men willing to try politics.

By this theory, the problem with radical Islam was its method (terrorism), not its goals (establishing Muslim Brotherhood style governments).

Some in the Obama orbit hoped that the entry into government would modulate and moderate Islamist goals. Others believed that even if the Islamists did not moderate, it was still preferable to live with them than to do what was necessary to resist them.

My friend Dean Godson of the British think tank Policy Exchange has a fascinating lecture - it would make a brilliant book - about how this approach derives from the British experience in Northern Ireland. Under Tony Blair, the British government had followed a double Irish policy: a more effective approach to kill or capture IRA terrorists - combined with vigorous negotiations that offered IRA leaders willing to abjure violence the very role in government they had been fighting to seize.

If you notice a similarity to the Obama policy in Afghanistan, it's not a coincidence.

This policy approach is hardly crazy, and indeed may well be the only solution to the Afghanistan problem. But extended indiscriminately, it can lead to some very crazy results: such as, for example, the previous mayor of London welcoming as an honored guest Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the ferocious Egyptian TV preacher of anti-semitism and homophobia. Qaradawi, you see, opposes terror attacks against Britain by British Muslims, which qualifies him as a man of peace, if you ignore his views about the rest of the world.

The central test of the engage-political-Islamists policy is post-Mubarak Egypt. Nobody remembers now, but after Mubarak's fall there was much debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in Egypt's new political system. It is hardly illiberal to ban a party that aims at the overthrow of a liberal state. West Germany banned neo-Nazi parties after 1945; the post-1989 Czech Republic forbade former communist officials to hold government jobs - and both democracies are stronger for it. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood escaped the ban by promising not to run a candidate for president, a promise it promptly broke.

Through it all, the Obama administration pressed for engagement, inclusion and acceptance, provided only that the Muslim Brotherhood complied with the rules of the political system. It did - and here we are.

That's the argument to have.