Bipartisan cluelessness on Egypt
July 5th, 2013
12:26 PM ET

Bipartisan cluelessness on Egypt

By Christian Whiton, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Christian Whiton is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.’ He was a State Department senior advisor from 2003-2009. The views expressed are his own.

That’s twice Washington was caught slack-jawed amid revolution in the world’s biggest Arab-majority state. But don’t blame the Obama administration exclusively for twice being on the losing side of events in Egypt. Reality in Egypt has also eluded Beltway Republican foreign policy mavens and America’s dysfunctional and distracted intelligence bureaucracies. That makes shaping events in Egypt nearly impossible.

The first shock for Washington came in January 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding secular democracy filled town squares. According to Washington and its $80 billion-per-year intelligence bureaucracy, these people did not exist in the Middle East. The choice there was supposedly between corrupt strongmen like Egypt’s 30-year president Hosni Mubarak or repressive Islamists like those who run Iran and populate Muslim Brotherhood parties around the region.

Secular liberals were as rare as unicorns and supported by only a small number of Egypt’s urbanites – or so the story went. And yet there they were: mobs of young Egyptians not demanding Islamic law and clerical rule, but accountable government with democratic laws and institutions.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which essentially invented modern Islamism – the political force seeking unification of mosque and state – hesitated and kept its supporters on the sidelines in Egypt. Senior Obama administration officials were also stunned along with much of the rest of Washington’s byzantine national security apparatus.

More from CNN: Will Brotherhood survive?

Even as it became clear that Mubarak would not survive, Vice President Joe Biden said supportively, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Of the nation that historically has been the political bellwether of the broader region, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton said, “We’re not advocating any specific outcome.”

These officials should be afforded some pity. The information and advice they were getting came partially from State Department experts who are perennially wrong about major developments in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the CIA was distracted. Originally created for the crucial tasks of stealing secrets and waging political war on America’s foes, the CIA has spent the last decade becoming a second military. With what amounts to a second American air force around the globe and a ground force now focusing on arming Syrian rebels – inexplicably so for a mission that isn’t conceivably covert – the CIA drifts ever farther from helping policymakers grasp and influence foreign political developments.

And so the first Egyptian revolution came and went. Despite being caught flatfooted before the uprising, surely officials across Washington would be excited at the emergence of a bloc in Egypt that wanted a modern democracy, wouldn’t they? Unfortunately, Washington has a way of not allowing new facts to tamper with long-held assumptions. If Egyptian secular liberals did not exist in theory then they couldn’t exist in practice.

More from GPS: Six lessons for Egypt

So when Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo in February 2011, they held high-profile meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood, lending it credibility. According to the Wall Street Journal, Graham remarked, “After talking with the Muslim Brotherhood, I was struck with their commitment to change the law because they believe it’s unfair.” Later, in April 2012, White House spokesman Jay Carney cited the McCain-Graham engagement with the Brotherhood as justification for the Obama administration’s own engagement with the Islamist group.

Of course, Egypt’s liberals were not entirely on top of their game in eliciting support from Washington – whether overt or covert. Their delegation that made the rounds on Capitol Hill stressed retribution over problem-solving and coalition-building. At one point, reformers told Hill staffers they wanted to put members of Egypt’s military on trial for their lives for past involvement in Egypt’s governance. This self-indulgent and unwise attitude toward the most prominent institution in Egypt that could keep the Islamists at bay did not endear the secularists to Congress.  As crucial elections arrived in mid-2012, the secularists appeared as disorganized as ever. The only surprise was how narrow their loss was in the presidential contest; the Islamists won by only 52 percent to 48 percent.

But official Washington should have known the secularists needed help – and deserved it even if they weren’t quite sure how to ask for it. Secular liberals will always, by definition, start off more disorganized than their authoritarian opponents. For example, organization and discipline were key traits of being an active member in a communist party in the last century. The same holds true of adherents for today’s totalitarian alternative to democracy: Islamism. Islamist groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah to al Qaeda are nothing if not disciplined.

Ultimately, liberals do get organized, but it often takes time. After 1944, Poland was under the communist boot for more than three decades before on-again, off-again disobedience and dissent grew into the more organized Solidarity movement. Even then, Poles did not win their freedom for another decade.  Georgia and Ukraine broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, but they would not have true democracy until liberal oppositions toppled corrupt, authoritarian governments in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

There are ways to shorten these transitions. The CIA used to support pro-freedom political forces in the Cold War, and those actions helped secular democracy prevail in countries like Italy and Greece.  In the 1980s, Washington created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to pick up this mantle and help foreign democratic forces organize and prevail politically.

Unfortunately, doing this today is light years from where the CIA is or wants to be. Furthermore, the world’s bad guys are now wise to NED’s intentions; Egypt expelled the employees of one of its subsidiaries. NED also has a leader, Carl Gershman, who seems to believe that Islamist parties can be coaxed into supporting liberal democracy by including them in the process – the same theory posited by other Washington bigwigs from Obama to McCain, which has now been clearly refuted by events.

Enter Egypt’s second revolution.  Is it any wonder that the Obama administration has chosen to remain reticent about the matter?  Egypt’s Islamist president is gone, but his supporters still exist and their secular opponents don’t yet appear to be more organized.  Worse still, the will for America and its allies to help them organize, and the tools to do that with, both appear to be in mothballs. So once again the most titanic political contest of our era takes a dramatic turn – one that will have an impact in every Muslim-majority nation and beyond, but with America largely on the sidelines. Washington will again leave crucial matters to chance.

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Topics: Arab Spring • Egypt • Libya • United States

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soundoff (220 Responses)
  1. DR Maksoud

    It is a a military coup, but any high ranking official, military or not, should say NO. If not he would be fired. the coup is clear, there is no but the channels of the remains of mubarak regime, no freeedom of speach, many pacific people put in jail without accusation. Dr Morsy tried to clear the country from corruption: he removed some privileges of the military and police, he fixed the minimum and maximum wages, he tried by law to recovered robbed money and land by the old regime, he opened doros with all the countries of the World, reached a truce between Palestineans and Israelis. The support of some countries will widen the gap with the Egyptians and Arabs.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:48 am | Reply
  2. Old Grunt

    What does RESPECT have to do with foreign policy?
    What does TRUST, INTEGRITY, & CREDIBILITY have with foreign policy? What does PLANNING and THINKING through policies have to do with foreign policy?

    This is what you get when you do not have the above!

    And, what is the end result of the Obama – Hillary Doctrine in Egypt you ask??,0,6572930.story

    Who would have ever dreamed four or five years ago that
    Europe would have the following view of Obama?

    ....AND, WHAT HAS OUR CRACK SECRETARY OF STATE (Vietnam Veteran if you recall) been doing during this crisis?

    ..And, let us not forget the on-going ‘delay and deny’
    tactics involving:

    · Libya (Benghazi)

    · Tunisia

    · Syria

    · Iraq

    · Afghanistan

    · Iran

    · Eastern Europe – especially Poland – who feels
    they were betrayed by Obama when he pulled the plug on missile defense

    · The Koreas

    · A growing number of South American countries
    (Bolivia, Ecuador, and even Brazil)

    How are we better off today than we were four years ago when Hillary and Obama started their ‘it is caused by videos’, and ‘Bush’s fault’ excuses? Just like Obamacare – a

    This has to be the most incompetent and corrupt administrations in our history!

    July 7, 2013 at 9:20 am | Reply
  3. aj

    I don't think the U.S. is the only country confused by the events in Egypt. Democracy means that sometimes the election does not go your way, and you have to accept that and work for change thru legal means. When the army sets the precedent of removing a democratically elected president and this is viewed as a good thing by a significant portion of the populace, then I would argue that many Egyptians are confused by the idea of democracy.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:57 am | Reply
  4. Reuben R. Lampe

    We need to start bringing our money home. I think we need to take a more defensive posture than throwing money at the problem. We always give aid to these countries and they all seem eventually turn on us. There are plenty of U.S. citizens making sacrifices so that these countries can disrespect the hand that helps them. I know people are going to say this is a sensitive and complicated issue but based on results and policies we have applied it's obvious throwing money at the problem is not working.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  5. Rjsenterp

    Obama has been out to lunch since he took office when it comes to foreign affairs. Nothing new here. Move along.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  6. nikkisixx

    Wait a minute! How about Egypt being clueless on Egypt. They voted for the MB!

    July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  7. Zach

    I find it funny that the american media has yet to show one image of the protesters holding banners and signs stating "wake up america, obama supports facism in egypt". Our media is a sad excuse for journalism. We have to be politically correct and can only tell half truths.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  8. jayb18

    Corruption in Washington D.C. has paralyzed our governments functionality, on both domestic & foreign policy. Self enrichment is our elected leaders highest priority.

    July 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  9. Ken

    Poor Egypt. The country is being torn apart due to religion. On one side you have those that want to follow a more conservative (or radical) form of Islam. In other words, Sharia law, women kept from schools and forced to cover up, women obey their men (and a draft passed in parliament prior to this overthrow would have changed the laws so only men could initiate divorces, not kidding). On the other are people who follow a more moderate view (or other views / atheist view), call it a more Western view to religion. And the country is split pretty well between those with moderate views (based in urban/city areas) and the conservative view (outside the urban/city areas or in the poor areas of the cities). What the conservatives fail to realize is, in any growing society things tend to liberalize over time. And there are many things they may want that they can never, ever have as it is seen is tyranny and a violation of rights. Look at Turkey where some of the things done, in a conservative view, has lead to riots in the streets recently. Same problem as Egypt, except they did not go as far and so the Military did not step in.

    July 7, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  10. Syd Chaden

    The facts speak for themselves. The Egyptian protesters demanded Freedom and Democracy. Obama and Hillary Clinton supported the ouster of Mubarak and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak had suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and had banned the Shariah. The Muslim Brotherhood had, for many years, declared that its goal was to bring rule by the Shariah to Egypt. Obama and Hillary Clinton said that the Brotherhood would bring Freedom and Democracy to Egypt. But, the Brotherhood brought the Shariah, just as they had said that they would. And, the Egyptian people once again protested for Freedom and Democracy. Whereas Obama had abandoned Mubarak, he sent F-16s and riot control gear to Egypt, and even waived the human rights requirements to permit increased US aid to Egypt. But, tjhe F-16s went to the military, who sided with the protesters, and Morsi was deposed. Apparently the Egyptian protesters and the Egyptian Army know the difference between the Shariah and Freedom and Democracy, even if Obama doesn't.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  11. fox123a

    Governmentally, the US is pretty clueless about most everything.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  12. phoenix86

    A few months ago, CNN would have posted this as being Bush's fault, or the Republicans' fault. Now its partially Obama's fault.

    I guess that progress on the media's glacial journey to presidential accountability.

    July 7, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  13. Cynthia

    The current policy is the best policy – sitting on the fence and choose the winning side.

    Art of war
    – do not let your adversaries or parties that may turn adversarial know your intents.
    – do not publicly form an intent or even a policy, lest your counterparts know that policy and act to exploit or extort that policy
    – project a blinded neutrality – lest your supposed ally exploit you and quietly acts as your adversary.
    – act in the interest of the people of the US not out of blind idealism of Jimmy Carter's blind loyalty to the Shah of Iran.

    Culture of Arabs
    – Loyalties of Arabs are as fluid as the wind.
    – Arabs do not express what they believe.
    – When an Arab insults you, it may actually mean he appreciates you and took the trouble to express that appreciation but expresses it in a way that would avoid making him sound subservient to you.
    – Personal pride is very important to an Arab. It is possible to make an Arab betray his brothers by subtly convincing him that it is his personal responsibility and and how he is being perceived is enhanced.
    – Subtle and indirect communication is very effective among Arabs. Tell him one thing but present him with an unspoken possibility – that unspoken possibility is what he wants to achieve and the spoken objective is what he wants broadcast as his intent.

    Egyptians are insulting Americans for being blind to the new Revolution. They gloat over it. It makes them proud that they can do something that even the all powerful CIA could not predict and they want it that way.

    July 7, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
    • Cynthia

      Egyptians took the trouble to criticise the (un)responsiveness of the US govt because they appreciate it the non-involvement and they appreciate the fact that they need the US on their side. Did they take the trouble to criticise the king of Saudi Arabia or the Presidents of Russia or China?

      July 7, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • Cynthia

      When dealing with an Arab mass of unknown loyalty – deliberately project ourselves as a mass of bumbling tumbling uncontrolled monster. Let them know that there are consequences to their actions – but those consequences are not deliberate on our part but because of our ineptness and indiscipline that they inevitably will occur. Because it is known that our response is not deliberate, they will take precautions against unwise strategies and their feelings and sentiments will not be hurt.

      July 7, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  14. Meg Pierce

    The U.S. is leaving another country's politics to chance? How about the U.S. is leaving another country's politics to that country to figure out. It is not up to us to decide who the Egyptians want to rule their own country. They gave their first leader a chance to try to run a democratic government and he did not, so they took him out. They certainly aren't the first North African government to take such an action, Algeria took similar action when a radical Islamic group looked like it would win their democratic elections. It is time that America and the west learn that there are as many types of Islam as their are Muslims, and the radicals are a minority rather than a majority. But coup d'états aren't exactly part of the democratic process, so how can our government condone it, especially when we have yet to see the results, which are more likely to be civil war or more of the same authoritarianism than they are to be a stable democracy.

    July 8, 2013 at 3:50 am | Reply
  15. Dave Rogers

    I never think of the RepublicansandDemocrats as being "clueless" about anything. To me, they seem like a tightly tuned legislative machine of highly competent, successful predators.

    If the US were actually clueless they'd be denying it by offering a clue. When they act's a darned good sign that we've been doing business with the Egyptian military for decades. ... and business is good.

    July 8, 2013 at 10:53 am | Reply
  16. Brett Champion

    They call them revolutions for a reason.

    July 8, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  17. DS

    Dear Christian Whiton,

    I think you should look at the statistics of the Egyptian elections again. If you look at the parlimentary elections, Islamists won 69% of the popular vote. Morsi's alliance of parties only made up for 37.5% of that 69%. Liberals won less than 20%, the rest being won by leftists and military parties.

    You are right that Morsi only won 52% of the vote in the presidential elections, but he is not supported by all Islamists. His opponent Ahmed Shafik is an ex-air force general. He is not a liberal democrat.

    With Islamists candidates supported by more then two-thirds of the populaton, I don't know why people can't accept Islamists into politics.

    My reference for the election numbers are wikipedia.

    July 10, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  18. Corey

    Thanks, A very useful information .

    September 11, 2013 at 5:46 am | Reply
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