Open Zion

08.15.13

U.S. Picked One Side in Egypt All Along

Barack Obama spoke to the nation today about the crisis in Egypt. He didn't take my advice—mirrored in the editorial pages of the Washington Post and New York Times, and countless other fora for leading opinion-makers—to cut off Egypt's aid. Instead, he took the mild-mannered step of suspending joint Egyptian-American military exercises (that'll teach 'em!).

What was most stunning about his remarks, though, was that Obama seemed to not acknowledge at all that we even give Egypt a massive military aid package of more than a billion dollars. Going beyond even that, Obama made comments that made it seem the U.S. had no link at all to any of the factions in Egypt engaged in yesterday's devastating and brutal violence. Here's what he said:

We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it's tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what's gone wrong. We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi; we've been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi.

But the fights in Egypt yesterday were between the Muslim Brotherhood and security forces of its military government, and that is a split on which we most certainly do take sides. Money talks, after all, and the U.S. pays for almost a fifth of Egypt's military budget. That's precisely what the whole debate about aid since the military's July 3 takeover has been all about, and yet Obama just ignored it. "Unfortunately, this manages to combine a bad policy of supporting the Egyptian military regime with the insulting pretense that the U.S. is merely a passive observer instead of a patron of the offending government," wrote Daniel Larison. It ain't, apparently, just a river in Egypt.

It's worth mentioning, in fairness, that the Obama administration was wrongly accused by some anti-Morsi zealots of siding with the Brotherhood. In reality, the administration was doing what any responsible world government would: working with the duly elected rulers of Egypt, at the time. Even throughout that period, generous American aid did continue to flow—not to the Brotherhood, but rather to the Egyptian military. When the army seized power last month, the aid wasn't transferred back to their government, but simply kept flowing to the military as an institution.

The most dispiriting thing about Obama's seeming denial was that it underscored what's been so wrong about U.S. policy for decades, especially in Egypt: the U.S. does fund unsavory regimes that brutalize and oppress their own people. That's what makes Egypt so different from, say, Syria or Iran, where the U.S. isn't tied directly to any faction by its bountiful support. And this, in turn, is exactly what makes Obama's failure to take decisive action amid Egypt's crisis all the more feckless. The president can not mention, if he so chooses, that the U.S. overwhelming supports one side of the current crisis, but it doesn't make it any less true.