By Walter Russell Mead
Secretary of State John Kerry went uncomfortably off-message yesterday in Pakistan, voicing a surprising level of support for Egypt’s military to journalists in Islamabad:
“In effect, they were restoring democracy,” Mr. Kerry said of Egypt’s military to Pakistan’s Geo News during a South Asia tour on Thursday. “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment—so far, so far—to run the country. There’s a civilian government.”
Obama administration officials tried to walk back the remarks—”He didn’t stick to the script,” an unnamed source growled to the WSJ—but it was too late. The media pounced, the remarks were quickly torn apart on Twitter, and Team Obama is again struggling to regain its balance on Egypt, trying not to call what happened a coup while hoping that the military doesn’t get too much more blood on its hands in restoring order to Cairo and Alexandria.
Let’s get the obvious parts out of the way: No, the Egyptian military is not restoring democracy in Egypt. You can’t “restore” something that never existed, and it takes a lot more than a couple of elections to make a democracy. Democracy requires a host of institutions, tacit agreements, and social norms most of which don’t exist in Egypt. It also depends on a certain basic level of economic progress and prosperity, also not exactly likely to sprout up on the banks of the Nile anytime soon.
The army wasn’t trying to build democracy, either; it was restoring order and protecting the deep state, more or less in accordance with the will of a large number of middle class and urban Egyptians. That’s the beginning and end of it. Americans desperately want somebody to be the pro-democracy good guys. But right now at least, democracy doesn’t seem to be on the menu at the Egypt café.
We don’t want to be too hard on Secretary Kerry. Foreign policy is never easy to do in real time, and the world is in a good deal of disarray at this very moment. But his remarks do point to a deeper problem with the Obama administration’s foreign policy approach—a problem that’s finally starting to bite.
The Obama administration has made a fundamental strategic choice that hasn’t worked out well. Officials decided to support the Muslim Brotherhood in the hope of detoxifying US relations in the Middle East and promoting moderation among Islamists across the world. Between Prime Minister Erdogan’s surging authoritarianism in Turkey and the unmitigated Morsi disaster in Egypt, that policy is pretty much a smoking ruin these days, and a shell-shocked administration is stumbling back to the drawing board with, it appears, few ideas about what to try next.
Adding insult to injury, the Obama administration has conducted itself erratically enough to have lost everyone’s respect in the process. It hastily and indecorously ditched long time ally Mubarak and embraced the Muslim Brotherhood only to drop the Brothers when the going got tough. It’s hard to blame anyone in Egypt right now for thinking that the Americans are worthless friends whose assurances are hollow and who will abandon you the minute you get into trouble. At every point along the way, the administration made the choices it did out of good motives, but it would be difficult to design a line of policy more calculated to undermine American prestige and influence than the one we chose.
Rarely has an administration looked as inconsequential and trifling as the Obama administration did this week as it tried to square the circle. It isn’t using the c-word because it doesn’t want to offend the military, but it bleats ineffectually about human rights in hopes of retaining a few shreds of credibility among the supporters of the ousted President. The armed forces appear to be treating the United States with indifference; our support won’t help and our scolding won’t hurt.
It’s very hard to see how all this has won us friends or influenced people. The kerfuffle with Kerry’s remarks in Pakistan wouldn’t normally amount to much. Even Secretaries of State are human, it is hard to explain complicated ideas in short television interviews, and all of us get our feet in our mouths sometime. But as one more misstep in a long series, it has had more impact than usual.
We’ve said from the beginning that the Arab Spring was going to present the administration with some horrible headaches and impossible choices. George Washington was the first US President to learn just how much trouble a long and complicated revolutionary process in an allied nation could cause. The French revolution split his cabinet, caused him huge political and diplomatic headaches, and so embittered American politics that he felt and feared that he had failed. Those who criticize the President should never forget just how difficult these challenges really are. Flip and vain talking heads are always sure that there are simple, easy alternatives that would make everything work out okay. That is almost never the case, and it certainly isn’t now.
All that said, it’s unlikely that the President and his team can be anything but unhappy with the view as they look across the Atlantic: Edward Snowden is sitting pretty in Moscow with Putin humiliating the administration (once again) by failing to give it advance notice of the decision, Assad is still holding court in Damascus and even predicting victory, there appear no easy outs in Afghanistan, Iran is surging in Iraq, and the promise of the Arab Spring has mostly evaporated. The recent jailbreaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, along with Thursday’s announcement that the US would be temporarily closing its embassies across the Middle East due to an unspecified terrorist threat, suggest al-Qaeda and other fanatical terror organizations are on a roll. Meanwhile, the US is farther than ever from the kind of partnership with relatively liberal and democratic Muslim parties and movements that the Obama administration sees as the best way to tame terror and build a better future. Success in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would have a large impact, but that prospect, sadly, still seems unlikely.
Fortunately for the administration, the public seems to want to think about the Middle East as little as possible. Yet the President’s poll numbers on foreign policy continue to decline, and much of the foreign policy establishment seems to be tip toeing away from the administration as quickly as it can.
Failure in the Middle East has the potential to wreck the President’s foreign policy world wide. The “pivot to Asia” was predicated on a shift of American attention and resources away from the Middle East. That seems less likely now; many in Asia are wondering what happens to the pivot when the Secretary of State has clearly put the peace process at the center of his priorities. It is not easy to discern a commitment to humanitarian values or human rights in an administration that has passively watched the Syrian bloodbath metastasize and that has put together global surveillance programs that have angered many human rights groups as well as some allied powers.
President Obama still has more than three years left in the White House, but many of the policies that he brought with him or developed early in his tenure have now passed their sell-by dates. Abandoning Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, intensification of the drone war in Pakistan, alliances with moderate Islamists, and a democracy agenda in the Middle East: sadly, those dogs won’t hunt anymore.
Many in the State Department and the broader foreign policy establishment believe that the relatively small group of trusted aides with whom the President has worked most closely don’t have the depth or experience to manage the country’s international portfolio well. We aren’t going to arbitrate that issue here; such criticisms are often self-serving. But whether he relies on the same aides or reaches out to more and different advisers, the President is going to have to change his approach to the Middle East and, one suspects, to Russia.