When Barack Obama finally reacted Thursday to the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that, a day earlier, saw more than 600 killed, he used cagey language that seemed to deny that the U.S. had a relationship with one side of the quickly evolving crisis: the military government. Obama elided any mention of the billions of dollars the U.S. provided over decades to Egypt's military, which, since a coup against the Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi early last month, rules the country. It is precisely this aid which led the Washington Post editorial board to declare Obama "complicit" in the military's brutal attack against the Brotherhood.
Some on the American right, however, exhibit none of Obama's evasiveness. They've been frank about American support for Egypt's military, even as its government led what Reuters writer David Rohde pointed out was "the largest massacre of protesters since the 1989 Tiananmen Square." The National Review called in an editorial for the U.S. to keep supporting the Egyptian military government is at "war" with the Muslim Brotherhood. Today in Commentary, neocon scholar Michael Rubin wrote this rather incredible conclusion to his call for Egypt to continue its crackdown—and for America to support it—no matter the human cost:
So what should the United States do? So long as the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to turn back the clock, impose its hateful and intolerant ideology upon Egyptians of all religiosities and religions, and refuses to abide by the pathway to transitional elections, and so long as it continues to fight in the streets, then it should suffer the consequences of its actions. And if those consequences result in exponentially higher Brotherhood casualties than army casualties, then so be it. That is the truest path to peace.
Let's set aside the perversity of calling for an ongoing massacre as the "truest path to peace." What Rubin is arguing against—his blogpost is titled "The Perils of Proportionality"—are concepts enshrined in international law. International human rights law dictates that, when people protest, governments must adhere to "proportionality" in their response. "The state is permitted to use force," said Sarah Knuckey, an international lawyer at NYU School of Law. "But the rules for the use of force are clear: any use of force must be both necessary and proportionate to a threat. Any intentional use of lethal force is only lawful where strictly necessary in response to a truly imminent threat to life. Some of the footage and descriptions of killings and injuries I have seen strongly suggests grossly excessive force by the Egyptian security forces."
Let's be clear: in the run-up to the crackdown, there were scattered reports of arms occasionally surfacing among the protesters, and occasional fire was exchanged between Morsi supporters and the military. But by and large these Brotherhood sit-ins were peaceful. "If some participants within an otherwise peaceable protest are armed and violent, the entire protest does not necessarily thereby become unlawful, and it does not justify the state using force against all the protesters," Knuckey said. "Force may only be used against those protesters posing a real threat."
Tens of thousands were participating by the time the army launched its crackdown. Exits from the squares were reportedly blocked as government snipers perched on surounding rooftops opened up, and riot policy on the ground fired tear gas and bird shot at protesters. Their fire was indiscriminate at best, targeting civilians at worst. Afterward, the military government announced it had seized some 20 guns and a handful of grenades from the tens of thousands of demonstrators. The interior ministry likely lowballed the death count when it announced 638 died in the first day of the crackdown, along with the "several dozen officers" from the Egyptian police cited by Rubin at the top of his piece.
"John Kerry and Barack Obama may embrace the idea of negotiated settlements in Egypt and Syria, but history suggests the idea of diplomatic settlements absent first a violent resolution to conflict is fantasy," Rubin writes. "Before diplomacy can succeed, all parties must recognize that they can only get through the negotiating table what they cannot get through violence."
This is a call for more vioelnce against the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet Rubin's bêtes noires were the ones who reportedly agreed in principle to a U.S.-brokered confidence-building measure, one that could have averted the violence. The military walked away from the table, then it carried out the massacre. Or rather, and more to the point, it made the choice to carry out the massacre. The Egyptian military was proving all the militant Islamists right—and so was the U.S. "The message the White House sent to young Islamists in Egypt this week was clear: What jihadists have been telling you about American hypocrisy for years is true," wrote David Rohde. "Democratic norms apply to everyone but you. Participating in elections is pointless. Violence is the route to power." Rubin echoed this message today, explicitly endorsing it as a modus operandi for the Egyptian military.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a retrograde, conservative religious movement. In their ham-handed year-long reign over Egypt, they exposed themselves as lacking a serious commitment to democratic principles, such as inclusion and protection of minority rights. But it's also the largest and best organized political force in Egypt. Rubin's notion that the Brotherhood should be bloodied into submission represents exactly the same foundational flaw seen in the Brotherhood's brief rule. Rubin demands, in fashion of old, hard-nosed Republican realists, that the U.S. continue its partnership with the Egyptian military, even amid its massacre of its own citizens. He's their perfect, and willing, partner.