David Frum

09.14.12

Egypt No Ally? Obama's Shrewdest Gaffe

Last night I tweeted a question: was President Obama's rejection in a TV interview of the term "ally" to describe Egypt a gaffe - or a useful rap on the knuckles?

State Department officials hastened post-interview to insist that Egypt does remain an "ally" in the technical sense of the term, i.e. legally eligible to receive certain forms of technology and assistance from the United States. That statement is Exhibit A for the argument that the president committed a gaffe.

Whether intentional or inadvertent, however, here are some reasons to think the statement useful:

At ForeignAffairs.com, Jyette Klausen details how Egypt's officials deliberately set in motion the attack on the Cairo embassy for their local purposes:

The chaos on Tuesday in Benghazi that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was set in motion the Sunday before when Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, spoke out against a film that he condemned as "offensive to all Muslims." He claimed that it was produced by "some extremist Copts" living in the United States. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government followed Gomaa's lead and demanded a public apology and criminal prosecution of the filmmakers. On Tuesday, as events unfolded in Benghazi, 3,000 demonstrators besieged the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

...

Hours after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the Muslim Brotherhood posted that it "strongly condemn[s] the deadly attack ... and the tragic loss of life. We urge restraint as people peacefully protest and express their anger." Even while condemning the attacks, however, the Brotherhood called for mass protests at mosques across Egypt on Friday, virtually guaranteeing that the unrest will spread.

Not exactly friendly.

Next today's New York Times describes the consternation inside the Egyptian government after President Obama's remark:

During a late-night, 20-minute phone call, Mr. Obama warned Mr. Morsi that relations would be jeopardized if Egyptian authorities failed to protect American diplomats and stand more firmly against anti-American attacks. ... “We are taking the heat from both sides,” Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, acknowledged Thursday as the group responded belatedly with a televised presidential address, a letter to the editor in The New York Times by its top strategist, and a series of sympathetic online messages aimed at mollifying American officials.

After decades focused on disciplining its own cadre to survive underground, the Brotherhood’s leadership is still adjusting to the competing constituencies and high visibility of democratic life.

The overall tone of the New York Times story is perhaps more optimistic than facts on the ground warrant: at least from my distance, it looks like the Muslim Brotherhood's President Morsi cares much more about using this incident to consolidate his party's power over Egypt than he does about preserving the US relationship, assuming he cares about that relationship at all.

But a message is being sent from the White House: Muslim Brotherhood policies will not be cost-free for Egypt. The Brotherhood may not care, may even welcome those costs. At least they are being presented with the bill.

On September 12, I compared the Muslim Brotherhood's exploitation of the YouTube film to the Ayatollah Khomeini's seizure of the US embassy: an incident manufactured to radicalize domestic opinion, marginalize domestic opponents, and gain control over the security services and military. Here, however, are two differences that may yet give the new rulers of Egypt pause: unlike Iran, they don't have oil - and unlike Iran, they have America's strongest regional partner right next door. What's the word to describe the US relationship with Israel? Oh yes: ally. And once again, a damn valuable one.