President Obama takes flak over Egypt

Lawmakers and experts on the Middle East are criticizing President Obama’s hands-off approach toward Egypt in the wake of the political crisis that has paralyzed the Arab world’s most populous country.

They argue that upheaval in Egypt’s streets just two years after the end of the Mubarak era points to a string of mistakes by the administration. Instead of hoping the situation would work itself out after Egyptians elected a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the presidency last year, they say the administration should have conditioned U.S. economic aid to the creation of democratic institutions and pushed back hard against the arrest of U.S. pro-democracy activists last year.

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“Because of [Obama’s] reluctance to enunciate a clear policy, rather than projecting neutrality what he has done is convince everyone that he’s supporting the other side,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser under President George W. Bush who is now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“So rather than the grandiose vision of having everyone love us, what we’re left with is everyone absolutely despising us,” Rubin said.

Some Democrats agree. 

“Where we missed an opportunity over the past year and a half in dealing with Egypt is not that we supported the wrong people, but that we missed an opportunity to support institutions and to really apply pressure where we had it,” said Bradley Bosserman, director of the Middle East and North Africa initiative at the New Policy Institute. 

“We need be much more outspoken going forward to make sure that there’s actual, legitimate processes and institutions for people to voice their opinion. We can do all of that while recognizing that the Egyptian people are going to vote for who they want,” he said.

The appearance of millions of Egyptians clamoring for Morsi’s early departure has forced the administration to step up its involvement. 

The president said Monday that democracy “is not just about elections” and that in Egypt, there’s “more work to be done to create the conditions in which everybody feels that their voices are heard, and that the government is responsive and truly representative.” 

Obama then talked to Morsi on the phone Tuesday and urged him to be “responsive” to protesters’ demands while calling on the U.S.-backed military to refrain from deposing him in a coup.

Observers see a pattern in which Obama has avoided taking a “headlong” dive into Middle Eastern affairs after campaigning as an anti-Iraq war candidate. Both the limited U.S. role in the campaign to oust Moammar Gadhafi and the administration’s struggle to respond to the civil war in Syria are indicative of a reluctance to use U.S. power that may be ebbing as instability continues to plague the region.

“I think we’re probably going to be moving closer to the idea of understanding that U.S. leadership is, in fact, important and unique in a lot of ways, and there’s an opportunity there that we should be playing more strongly,” Bosserman said.

Lawmakers haven’t been shy about rejecting Obama’s measured approach.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, has introduced legislation conditioning U.S. aid to progress on human rights and the rule of law.

“If we don’t condition our aid,” she said last month, “we risk sending the wrong message — yet again — to countries in the region and around the world that the United States will not only tolerate this unabashed attack on democratic values, but we will not hold these violators accountable for their repressive action.”

Freshman Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) sided squarely with the Egyptian military after the army gave Morsi and the opposition 48 hours to reach a political settlement.

“As the largest Arab state and the linchpin of security in the region, Egypt cannot be allowed to implode,” Meng said in a statement Tuesday. “The U.S. has and should continue to support democratic governance in Egypt. At this juncture, however, the need for basic security is paramount.”

Bosserman said Congress is part of the problem. He said Obama laid out a path forward for the Middle East in his 2009 Cairo speech but failed to follow through with specific incentives, in part because Congress has blocked efforts to approve his $770 million incentive fund designed to advance democratic and economic reforms in Arab Spring countries.

Rubin said the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. military and economic aid is already more than enough and should be conditioned to progress on key U.S. priorities.

Both he and Bosserman agreed however that the administration should have protested much more forcefully when an Egyptian court sentenced 43 nongovernmental organization workers — including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and 15 other Americans — to up to five years in prison earlier this year. The activists are members of U.S.-funded democracy-building institutions and are accused of seeking to destabilize the Egyptian government. 

Rubin faulted both Democratic and Republican administrations for acting like “leverage is a dirty word.”

“What [Secretary of State John] Kerry’s got to prove is that giving aid is going to bolster American leverage for an outcome conducive to American national security,” Rubin said. “If he’s giving aid simply to take the edge off the financial hurt that the Egyptian people are feeling … then he should be the head of Oxfam rather than the secretary of State.”

— Updated at 8:25 p.m.