As violence continues to smolder in Egypt, it has become clear that President Obama’s golf-course diplomacy has failed. When Mr. Obama graced us with his presence last week all he offered was a very self-pitying excuse that he faced a difficult situation with large downsides for America if things go badly. He’s right, and it’s why he needs to lead.
“We appreciate the complexity of the situation,” Obama said in an August 15 statement, before rambling on pointlessly about how both sides in the Egyptian conflict had legitimate grievances, as if that uncontroversial observation would make any sort of difference.
The statement was vintage Obama and was also symptomatic of the problem with American foreign policy at the moment: it is lacking in leadership.
The situation in Egypt is a difficult one for America, with few good options and the possibility of some very bad outcomes. That said, Mr. Obama’s traditional refusal to lead will only make things worse for American interests.
America has two real levers it can pull to influence the behavior of the Egyptian military: economic and military aid. Pulling the first lever – suspending economic aid to Egypt – is the easiest but also the least effective. Persian Gulf states are already stepping in to offer the Egyptian government whatever economic assistance it might need in exchange for the continued crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Should America pull back its economic aid, these Arab states will quickly fill the gap, putting little near-term pressure on Egypt to reconcile with the Brotherhood.
The second, more effective lever is to withhold or curtail military aid. America has armed Egypt for decades, constructing a peaceful Arab balance to Israel and ensuring that other world powers did not gain a strong foothold in the region – first the USSR and more recently Russia and China.
By canceling any remaining military aid, Mr. Obama would send a real signal to Egypt that he has chosen to act in the cause of peace and reconciliation between secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood. This strategy is not without risk. Many in Congress would not like it, both Republicans and Democrats. Arab states would not like it. Egypt would not like it. Israel would not like it.
Besides upsetting allies in the short term, cutting off aid also bears long-term consequences for U.S. interests. Should Egypt’s generals refuse to bow to American pressure, they could seek new defense contracts with either Russia or China – something either state would relish.
Further, pressuring the Egyptian government to reconcile would mean Mr. Obama would need to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s readmission to Egyptian politics, strengthening the organization that gave birth to Hamas, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, and countless other radicals.
Were Mr. Obama to choose not to withhold aid and allow Egypt and its Gulf State friends to continue their brutal anti-Brotherhood campaign he risks further destabilizing the Arab world’s largest and most important country. Such a course also risks further radicalizing the Muslim Brotherhood itself as well as drawing jihadis from across globe – possibly turning Egypt into Pakistan.
There is no denying the complexity of American involvement in Egypt. However, effectively dealing with complex situations is what global leaders do. It’s Mr. Obama’s job to figure out which course is best for American interest and how to implement it. He is America’s chief foreign policy official and rather than complain about how complex an issue is or prattle on about whose grievances are most legitimate, he should say which course he thinks is best and why.
Egypt is simply too important an issue for Mr. Obama to lead from the golf course. Letting events play out will not serve American interests at all and it is incumbent upon our president to lead from in front before the situation devolves further.
Matt Cover is Content Editor at Rare. Follow him on Twitter @MattCover