Obama Struggles To Find Effective Egypt Policy

Aug 18, 2013
Originally published on August 18, 2013 5:00 pm

The Obama administration is in a difficult situation with its Egypt policy.

President Obama, who often talks about free speech and human rights, has cancelled joint military exercises with Egypt but has stopped short of cutting off aid to the Egyptian military. As the violence continues in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, all sides seem unhappy with the U.S. approach.

In 2009, on his first trip to the Middle East as president, in the same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama spoke of a new approach to relations with the Islamic world.

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said in a speech at Cairo University. The speech was hailed as a turning point in U.S. foreign policy.

This past week, though, he was trying to explain to Egyptians why he's not cutting off aid to a military that was violently cracking down on Islamist protesters.

"Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we've sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people," he said, making a statement from his vacation at Martha's Vineyard on Thursday.

To demonstrate his concern over the action of security forces, he cancelled plans for joint military exercises next month. Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says there is not much else the United States can do instantly, but he does see changes in this relationship.

"We have been working for 30 years to broaden, deepen and strengthen our cooperation with Egypt," Alterman says. "Now we are moving to make that narrower, but it takes time."

Time to decide what is essential, he says, adding that counterterrorism cooperation, regional security and Israel are all key factors.

"The United States has played a vital role lubricating the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, which has led up to being a huge boon to Israeli security," Alterman says. "If you don't have as close a U.S.-Egyptian relationship, that is going to have definite visible effects on the Egyptian-Israeli border."

Other analysts say it's time to completely rethink U.S. policy on Egypt. Michele Dunne, who runs the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama's failure to suspend aid undercuts U.S. credibility, and could come back to haunt it.

"What's happening now in Egypt — the crackdown on Islamists, the widespread bloodshed — and what's happened in Syria is going to build the new jihadist narrative of betrayal by the West," Dunne says: "That the United States failed to come to the assistance of the Syrian people in a timely and effective fashion, and that it failed to not only act effectively but even to withdraw assistance from the Egyptian military when it cracked down on Islamists inside of Egypt."

Against this backdrop, Dunne says, the president's speeches about democracy and human rights ring hollow.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki spent much of the last week trying to fend off criticism of the administration's approach. AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee pressed her on how effective she thinks U.S. policy has been.

"Is the administration confident that the steps, that the policy that you have pursued thus far in Egypt and also in Syria are worthy of a president who not so long ago won the Nobel Peace Prize?" Lee asked.

"Yes, Matt," Psaki answered, but she also acknowledged that no one thinks that simply cancelling military exercises with Egypt will change the situation on the ground.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Obama administration has been put in a difficult situation by the recent events in Egypt. President Obama often talks about free speech and human rights around the world but as the violence continues, Egyptians and many in the U.S. say the Obama administration isn't doing enough to bring an end to the conflict.

Mr. Obama has canceled joint military exercises with Egypt, which was a largely symbolic move. He did not cut off the more than a billion dollars in aid the U.S. gives to the Egyptian military every year. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on why U.S. policy toward Egypt seems so difficult to change.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On his first trip to the Middle East as president in the same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama spoke of a new approach.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

KELEMEN: This past week though, he was trying to explain to Egyptians why he's not cutting off aid to a military that was violently cracking down on Islamist protesters.

OBAMA: Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world and our believe that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people.

KELEMEN: To demonstrate his concern over the action of security forces, he canceled plans for joint military exercises next month. Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says there's not a lot the U.S. can do instantly, but he does see changes in this relationship.

JON ALTERMAN: We have been working for 30 years to broaden, deepen and strengthen our cooperation with Egypt. And now we're moving to make that narrower, but it takes time.

KELEMEN: Time to decide what's essential, he says, adding that counterterrorism cooperation, regional security and Israel are all key factors.

ALTERMAN: The United States has played a vital role lubricating the Egyptian/Israeli relationship, which has led up to being a huge boon to Israeli security. And if you don't have a close a U.S./Egyptian relationship, that is going to have definite visible effects on the Egyptian/Israeli border.

KELEMEN: Other analysts say it's time now to completely rethink U.S. policy on Egypt. Michele Dunne, who runs the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama's failure to suspend aid undercuts U.S. credibility and could come back to haunt the U.S.

MICHELE DUNNE: What's happening now in Egypt, the crackdown on Islamists, the widespread bloodshed, and what has happened in Syria, is going to build the new jihadist narrative of betrayal by the West, that the United States failed to come to the assistance of the Syrian people in a timely and effective fashion, and that it failed to, not only act effectively but even to withdraw assistance from the Egyptian military when it cracked down on Islamists inside of Egypt.

KELEMEN: And against this backdrop, Dunne says the President's speeches about democracy and human rights ring hallow. State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, spent much of the last week trying to fend off criticism of the administration's approach. AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee pressed her on how effective she thinks U.S. policy has been.

MATT LEE: Is the administration confident that the steps that the policy that you have presumed thus far in Egypt and also in Syria are worthy of a president who not so long ago won the Nobel Peace Prize?

JEN PSAKI: Yes, Matt.

KELEMEN: But she also acknowledged that no one thinks that simply canceling military exercises with Egypt will change the situation on the ground. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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