ALLARD: Playing checkers on Egypt’s chess board

Obama doesn’t grasp the stakes in the Middle East game

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It was only a momentary interruption of his vacation in the oh-so-tony climes of Martha’s Vineyard. As the death toll from Egyptian riots topped 500, President Obama took it upon himself to call for restraint on both sides, neither of which appeared to be listening. The State Department helpfully chimed in that there “was no place” for violence despite the pitched battles taking place between the Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood rioters demanding the return of ousted strongman Mohammed Morsi. Mr. Obama further showed his displeasure by suspending the joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises scheduled for next month, a biennial landmark for both armies.

Although Mr. Obama resolutely claimed impartiality — “We don’t take sides “— critics like former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton swiftly charged that Mr. Obama had effectively come down on the side of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, making a bad situation even worse. Far more perplexing for the Obama White House was the criticism leveled by a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post, normally a reliable administration cheerleader: ” the Obama administration is complicit in the new and horrifyingly bloody crackdown launched Wednesday by the de facto regime against tens of thousands of protesters who had camped out in two Cairo squares.”

Equally confounding to allies and adversaries alike, Egypt is simply the latest debacle in the foreign policy of an administration that persists in playing checkers in the multifaceted chess match of international politics. As a result of bungled priorities and missed opportunities, those stakes grow higher every day. Egypt is not only the most populous country in the Arab world, but is also a fulcrum: between Israel and the Arab countries to the east and west, and among the nine African countries (and 200 million people) with which it shares the Nile River valley from south to north. See what I mean about stakes?

Yet from his famous 2009 Cairo speech, “A New Beginning,” Mr. Obama has persistently seen the Arab world through the badly distorted lens of Western idealism. The signal inadvertently sent by his administration — almost from his first inauguration — was that extremists in Egypt and elsewhere could relax. America was now in retreat — militarily, economically and politically. For those and a host of other reasons, the Arab Spring and the rise of Mr. Morsi followed as naturally as night follows day.

For a time, wishful thinking allowed the ugly new realities in Cairo to be camouflaged, hidden away lest anyone think that the admittedly democratic election of Mr. Morsi was a mixed blessing. One of those who had reason to believe otherwise is Raymond Ibrahim, a Coptic Christian and author specializing in Middle East issues. In his recent book, “Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians,” Mr. Ibrahim catalogs the persecution of Christians that Western media typically ignores.

Although his book’s scope is global — and extensively documented — it is especially graphic in its descriptions of Coptic churches throughout Egypt being bombed, burned and destroyed, and of violence against Christians because of their faith. The Maspero Massacre serves as an example — an October 2011 atrocity that killed at least 28 Copts in scenes reminiscent of “Schindler’s List.” Mr. Ibrahim claims that this was simply the Muslim Brotherhood doing precisely what the tenets of Islam required.

To their credit, many Egyptians who were not Copts were outraged as well, dismayed by the growing drift of Egypt under Mr. Morsi, where the trains didn’t run on time even as drought and famine were quickly becoming plagues of biblical dimensions. With Ethiopia diverting Nile waters to its new Renaissance Dam, in May Mr. Morsi convened a meeting to discuss Egyptian options, including various harebrained schemes for military action. To the government’s intense embarrassment, the proceedings were carried live on Egyptian television. Whether resulting from a fateful technical glitch or a fiendish dirty trick, the veil was abruptly torn away from the Morsi government.

Everywhere, that is, except in Washington, where wishful thinking is practically an art form. Small wonder that the Egypt of the masses, the mosque and the military exploded, with some 60 million strong who had simply had enough. Small wonder as well that this strategically vital ally is on the verge of civil war — decent people arrayed against proto-fascists yearning for the comforting customs of the seventh century.

It is a hard reality, but one especially difficult to grasp from Martha’s Vineyard.

Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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