Obama's Role in Empowering the Muslim Brotherhood
The Obama administration is claiming that the president has been out in front of the crisis in Egypt. The facts prove otherwise. He has been behind the curve and has badly damaged American interests -- perhaps irretrievably so.
To hear soon-to-depart White House senior adviser David Axelrod tell it, President Barack Obama has long taken a tough line with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over human rights and political reform issues in his country."The way [Obama has] confronted it, is he went to Cairo and talked about the need, the universal human rights of people. He's on several occasions directly confronted Pres. Mubarak on it. And pushed him on the need for political reform in his country," Axelrod told ABC's Jake Tapper Friday, on the adviser's last day of work at the White House."To get ahead of this?" Tapper asked."Exactly. To get ahead of this. This is a project he's been working on for two years, and today the president is working hard to encourage restraint and a cessation of violence against the people of Egypt," said Axelrod."Nice myth," said one human rights advocate I asked about Axelrod's description.There are a couple of problems with Axelrod's account. First, there's little public evidence that Obama "confronted" Mubarak on these issues. White House officials have said the subjects were raised in meetings between the men, but when the two met publicly there was little indication that Obama was pressuring Mubarak on the issue.During the 25-minute press availability during the pair's Oval Office meeting in August 2009, Obama didn't mention the issue. Mubarak was the one who brought it up, telling the press how "friendly" their exchange on the subject was and suggesting a rather leisurely timeline to make changes.The other sleight-of-hand in Axelrod's comment is his suggestion that Obama's visit to Cairo in June 2009 was intended or perceived as speaking hard truths to Mubarak. To the contrary, many in the region, in other Muslim countries and the U.S. ( see here and here) saw the choice of Egypt for Obama's first speech to the Muslim world as a huge laurel for Mubarak, not an albatross. Obama's speech made no direct reference to political reform or human rights issues in Egypt, save for a passing reference to Christian Copts there. There were also reports that the U.S. eased up on democracy promotion there.However confrontational the Obama administration's approach to this issue may have been over the past two years, I certainly don't remember Obama administration officials ever publicly suggesting, as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did directly on Friday, that U.S. aid to Egypt was in jeopardy.
He was not ahead of the curve but, in an all-too-rare instance of budget-cutting, slashed aid to groups that might have been key players (and allies of the United States) when a new government is established.
Although President Obama has sided firmly with pro-democracy protesters in Egypt, his administration spent its first two years easing the U.S. push for human rights reforms in that country.
Early in Obama's presidency, officials cut in half funding to promote democracy in Egypt. They also agreed to restrict certain grants only to organizations licensed by President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, reversing a Bush administration policy of funding groups at odds with the government.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a March 2009 meeting with Mubarak at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, seemed to downplay a State Department report documenting torture, rape and political detentions in Egypt.
"We issue these reports on every country," Clinton told a television interviewer. "And so we hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement."
Egyptian dissidents were distressed by the administration's message.
"All this sent a signal that was very damaging," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington advocacy group.
Obama spoke in general terms about political rights in his seminal address to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, but did not explicitly demand reform in Egypt, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did in 2005. Rice's remarks reflected then-President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East, which involved stepped-up pressure for democratic reforms.
The Bush administration pressured Mubarak into holding elections in 2005 that though flawed, were the fairest in the country's history, analysts say. But harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects, secret CIA prisons and the Iraq war tainted the Bush approach. And after Palestinian elections in 2006 that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, Bush's ardor for Arab democracy cooled.
Obama pulled back further.
Washington evidently failed to foresee that embittered Egyptians might then resort to the massed protests of the past two weeks, and it abandoned Mubarak with alacrity as it scrambled to avoid being caught on the wrong side of a largely spontaneous people's push for freedom and democracy.
But however one gauges the realpolitik involved in that dramatic recoil from a 30-year ally, the White House's subsequent reported moves to legitimate Egypt's Islamists -- whose outlook conflicts utterly with the democratic agenda -- make no sense, and suggest a frighteningly superficial understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood's intentions and potential achievements.
Far from learning the lessons of the Islamists' skilled subversion of other pro-democracy movements, working with potential leaders of an Egyptian transition to minimize the risk of such a process recurring, and making publicly plain that there will be no ongoing American alliance with an Egypt in which an unreformed Islamist movement has even a marginal role in government, the White House seems to be actively encouraging a transitional outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Things could be taking a dangerous turn in Egypt. The Washington Post reports that the Muslim Brotherhood has new interest in participating in talks on the transition of leadership. "The Brotherhood had refused to join talks Saturday, insisting that Mubarak leave first. But leaders of the movement changed their minds Sunday, saying they wanted to play a role in shaping a transition of power and organizing free elections."The American response has been less than inspiring. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told National Public Radio: "Today we learned the Muslim Brotherhood decided to participate, which suggests they at least are now involved in the dialogue that we have encouraged." Yes, participation does suggest involvement, doesn't it? "We're going to wait and see how this develops," she said, "but we've been very clear about what we expect."The only party that has actually been clear about what it expects is the Muslim Brotherhood - and it expects to rule.
So has Barack Obama been ahead of the curve? Only if you think he wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to assume power.