The PJ Tatler

What Good Will Canceling Military Exercises with Egypt Do?

Today, President Obama looked up from his poker game with Reggie Love, or golf or whatever he was doing, to speak on the civil unrest roiling Egypt. With the military trying to hold Egypt together and the Muslim Brotherhood on a rampage trying to destabilize Egypt to return themselves to power, Obama chose to cancel a joint exercise with Egypt’s armed forces.

Interrupting his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Obama said American “national security interests in this part of the world and the belief that our engagement can support a transition back to democracy” has prompted him to maintain $1.3 billion in annual military to Egypt’s interim government.

But after the violence Wednesday against opposition demonstrators, which has left hundreds dead in Cairo and sparked a broader backlash across the nation, Obama said, “Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual.”

First, contra the Washington Post, the violence isn’t just “against opposition demonstrators.” The media continue to paint a one-sided picture of what’s going on in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is as much an author of the violence as anyone. They’re attacking Christians, burning churches (more than a dozen burned yesterday alone) and going after the police. These aren’t merely “reprisal attacks,” and the Muslim Brotherhood are not innocent lambs or even idealistic hippies staging peaceful sit-ins. They are hard core, violent totalitarians. Had they not tried to drive Egypt toward full Islamist rule, there’s an argument to be made that the military would have never stepped in to oust them, and millions of Egyptians wouldn’t have united in backing that move. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is risking civil war to take power back.

Obama said the biannual joint training exercise, known as Bright Star, would not proceed as scheduled next month. The event was also postponed in 2011, after popular protests led to the ouster of longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, but U.S. officials had hoped it would resume this year.

Right now, while the Egyptian military’s role and rule isn’t the Jeffersonian ideal we would like, it is the best and most stable institution through which American interests might be pursued and peace might ultimately be restored. Past presidents recognized that the US sometimes has to work with unsavory types and institutions that don’t live up to our ideals, both to further our own national interests and to nudge countries toward more peaceful and open forms of government over time. Obama evidently is either ignorant of that history or rejects it outright, preferring instead to play his both-sides-have-points-but-both-sides-are-bad game while pretending that the real villains in Egypt aren’t really villains at all. Today’s announcement ends up tilting America toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which is consistent with Obama’s overall policy toward Egypt and the Middle East, but inconsistent with America’s long-term interests.

In the end, canceling the exercise while leaving $1 billion in borrowed aid to the military in place sends a mixed message and undermines his credibility. In the long term, it may push the victors away from the US. If the Muslim Brotherhood is restored to power, our influence would be nil anyway. But we had a good chance of remaining on good terms with Egypt if the military won out. Now, we’re setting up a scenario for another Pakistan, giving Egypt the excuse and opportunity to tilt away from the US and toward Russia and China.