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GERSON: Misdirected condemnation for Egypt

The Obama-Rice team encourages more violence

- - Monday, August 19, 2013

In her debut performance as national security adviser, confronting the Egypt crisis, Susan E. Rice (and her boss, President Obama) failed miserably.

The failure is particularly acute on the part of Mrs. Rice, though. After all, she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where she was amply exposed to the meaning of the phrase "strongly condemns," the one chosen Thursday by the president and his national security team to castigate Egypt's interim government and military for its crackdown.

Surely, Mrs. Rice's experience with U.N. Security Council resolutions taught her the consequences of the words "strongly condemns." In deeming one party's action to be those of an aggressor, license is given to the "victim" to engage in an expanded notion of self-defense.

The U.N. context also teaches one to understand that heinous actions are often (although not always) preceded by provocation. Yet in the president's speech, there is no reference whatsoever to the Muslim Brotherhood. It's as if there was simply a peaceful demonstration beset by security personnel bent on attacking them with martial force.

Yet for more than three weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood was told the organization had to disband its occupation of public space or face the consequences of forcible removal. What would any other security apparatus, especially in the Arab world, do in the face of such a blanket refusal to budge?

Conspicuously absent in the president's address was any mention of the fact that more than 40 police officers were killed. These were well-protected security forces. How did they manage to get killed unless "peaceful protesters" were well armed and prepared to fire at will? Why rush to judgment before the smoke on the ground has cleared?

Of course, this is not to say that the United States should not strongly deplore the military's actions that led to so much loss of life. But why not in more measured tones? The answer appears to be that the president's justification — "we did align ourselves with principles" — indeed mirrors the reality of the administration's preparedness to more readily make allies with abstract principles than with real countries and governments. Other administrations (Jimmy Carter's may be an exception) try, to their credit, to adhere to principles insofar as they do not conflict with national security concerns, not the other way around.

It is true, as the president said, that "America cannot determine the future of Egypt." However, that's precisely what he is attempting to do in desperately trying to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood is part of Egypt's future. The future of Egypt, Mr. Obama proclaimed, lies in investment and economic opportunity. Yet he hardly alluded to the fact that under the rule of erstwhile President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was going down the path of economic ruin. It is no accident that 30 million people are demonstrating about that perilous state of affairs.

What has the United States to gain in condemning the interim government's crackdown as warranting, at the least, the cancellation of planned joint military exercises? At this moment, it simply serves as a signal to the Muslim Brotherhood that if they persist in their tactics, they eventually will prevail, even though those tactics now center, for all intents and purposes, on civil war.

How does such a response further regional peace and security? Will Israel be more secure with Egypt's military undermined and incapable of taking effective action against the jihadist threat in the Sinai? Will Egypt be saved from descent to chaos?

What occurred was deplorable and repulsive, but not incurable. It would be far better to now engage Egypt's military to ensure better riot control in handling ostensibly unlawful demonstrations. If the U.S. military has effective strategies for dealing with protesters such as those who pushed an Egyptian National Guard armored personnel carrier off a bridge or fired bullets at security forces, then let those better practices be shared now as part of joint exercises.

This administration must eventually come to grips with the reality that for all its talk of advancing democracy, the region lacks democrats. In fact, the most stable government Egypt had in a long time was the Cabinet that was formed by the military. Why not hold our powder until after an independent investigative commission determines what went wrong? True humanitarian assistance can proceed in the interim, rather than pious cancellations, in more effectively serving America's national interests in a more secure and stable Egypt.

Allan Gerson is former chief counsel to United Nations Ambassadors Jeane Kirkpatrick and Vernon Walters.