Red Herring

What Obama Should Have Said

The president’s statement Thursday about the crisis in Egypt was helpful, but he missed a crucial opportunity to differentiate democracy from Islamism.

08.15.13 4:32 PM ET

There was a lot to like in President Obama’s statement Thursday about the calamity in Egypt. He walked a crucial line between calling on Egypt to return to “a democratic path,” while also implicitly acknowledging that democracy and liberal democracy are two very different things. In a decent political system, “the rights of women and religious minorities”—two groups menaced in Egypt today—cannot be subject to majority vote.

He also talked about America’s own brutal, winding road toward greater political freedom. It’s one of his most appealing rhetorical tropes. George W. Bush talked about American democracy as an accomplishment. Obama talks about it as a struggle. That’s important for Egyptians to hear, and for Americans—especially in places like North Carolina—to hear as well.

Obama announced the cancellation of a military exercise with Egypt, but did not cut off aid in general. That’s OK, too. Cutting off aid might have made a difference the moment the coup happened. Now, tragically, it’s too late, so there’s no harm in taking the time to think things through.

Obama’s statement did, however, miss one critical note. When it comes to the Middle East, perhaps the biggest debate in America today is over whether the United States should support the right of Islamist parties to run in democratic elections. Since Morsi’s victory in Egypt—and subsequent authoritarian moves—a growing cadre of American commentators have argued that the U.S. should oppose Islamist rule even if that means supporting coups, military regimes, even massacres in the streets. As David Brooks wrote after last month’s coup, Islamists “lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.”

I doubt Obama believes that. And he shouldn’t. Analytically, “Islamism” is about as useful in analyzing Middle Eastern politics today as “communism” and “socialism” were in analyzing political parties and movements during the Cold War. The term conceals vast differences of national tradition and political culture. To make “Islamism” America’s litmus test, rather than respect for free elections, minority rights, nonviolence, and the rule of law, would be to repeat the paranoid, Manichean tendency that led the U.S. to support coups against democratically elected regimes that we deemed “communist” in countries like Iran and Guatemala during the Cold War.

Yet across the Middle East today, many think that is precisely America’s policy. We winked at a coup that overturned free elections in Algeria in 1992. We tried to foment one against Hamas after it won democratic elections among the Palestinians in 2006. And now, in the eyes of many, we’ve done the same in Egypt.

At this point, few will still believe Obama. Still, he should have said bluntly that the U.S. supports the rights of Islamist parties to peacefully seek power as long as they respect democratic norms. Freely elected Islamist governments, as Mohammed Morsi showed, can be frightening. But the alternative, Obama should have said, is worse. For the evidence, just turn on your TV screen.