In Egypt, Is Obama Calling the Islamist Bluff?

What the president’s wait-and-see approach says about the U.S.’s Middle East strategy.

Broken chatter over a broken Egypt is caught up in why the United States continues funneling $1.8 billion in annual aid to what is now, clearly, a coup-installed military regime. The big talk in Washington is whether the Obama administration should put a stop to it and … well … just how it looks given our

  1. past nasty Cold War penchant for funding totalitarian regimes, and
  2. national habit of leading the blind when we’re just as blind. That conversation is really focused on the face-saving aspect of the unraveling mess that is Egypt.

The Obama White House, notorious for beard-scratching deliberations as long as a Tolkien chapter, attempts to figure it all out while avoiding the aid issue. Congress, on both sides of the aisle, is steaming over administration ambivalence as officials refuse to call the coup … the coup.

But, in reality, this is Obama modus operandi 101: simply letting the crap that hit the fan fall where it may. And while it’s a pain in the ass in the short term, it sometimes pays dividends in the long term for the guy on Pennsylvania Avenue who likes the long game (weird considering his love for a sport that is based on frenzied pick-me-ups and dunks).

We saw this in the spring triplet scandals that emerged over Benghazi, the IRS and Justice Department wiretapping of the Associated Press; we also noticed it after Edward Snowden’s now-defunct bum rush of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. It’s a pattern present throughout the president’s tenure: Some scandal or controversy strikes thereby giving the media its chance to eagerly paint it as (finally) the existential threat to the Obama legacy — complete with Republican backbenchers calling up the “I” word as if it’s 1998.

What happens is the president rides it out, in an indifferent and removed way that is the exact opposite of the snap-crackle-pop, bull-in-the-China-closet approach of the previous administration. Riding out the first Arab Spring (since everyone wants to call a military-staged takeover Arab Spring II — whatever floats your boat) seemed like short-term punkishness – but, actually, it could also be seen as long term bluff-calling. Same case with Syria. The Obama Wan Kenobi school of thought ponders scenes of despair with the same coldness of Stringer Bell in The Wire or Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Crisis in this part of the world is always what it is: perpetually fracked up (head nod to my Battlestar Galactica peeps out there). So, the president goes: “and the reason we’re tripping out about this is because … ?”

Contours of the long game are curving their way through the Egyptian apocalypse, which might not be as bad as it seems if the rest of the Islamic world from Turkey to Tunisia wasn’t blowing up. Game theory suggests an Obama foreign policy fanatically intent on pulling itself away from our freakish, oil-induced obsession with the geopolitical Middle East (Egypt is really North Africa, fam). As U.S. foreign policy interests and assets shift to Africa and Asia, there is an emerging desire to control events in the Arab world, but at arm’s length, leaving it in the hands of those who live there. That Saudi Arabia just announced an $8 billion pledge to the Egyptian military’s faux “transition” government comes as no surprise as the Obama administration feels the heat from Washington critics wanting it to pull American aid — all while Egypt cracks like a Spinx nose under the weight of ballooning debt.

As the U.S. shifts further away from Islamic world oil — and gradually swerves over to more renewable energy use — the mood is swinging to a clarion “you do what you do” wave to the U.S. neck cramp that has long been the Middle East. Saudi money flowing into Egypt not only signals the spread of Saudi  influence, but it may also signal an out for U.S. aid (King Abdullah to Washington: “no worries, we’ve got this”).  Essentially, there’s a play here suggesting the U.S. slowly moves out and passes the ball over to the Saudis — one possible motivation for Obama’s excruciating wait-and-see strategy.

Another reason for the long, cold Obama stare may not be as obvious. Letting “democracy” and all the flawed political processes that unfold with it may be the new American strategy in the far-flung, unstable Islamic world: Rather than force it, let it happen organically and then let the dominoes fall where they may. Previous U.S. policy iterations of “Middle Eastern peace” attempted to fit a circle in a triangle; the Obama administration approach, however, is to let it be and, again, call the bluff of Islamists who are so hell bent on running things.

But, can they? Muslim Brotherhood activists under the now-deposed Egyptian President Morsi may have had the political savvy and determination to win Egypt’s first democratic elections. That was inevitable considering they were the only organized political faction outside of the authoritarian regime that existed. And to now have them booted from power as quickly as they took hold of it may be a carefully orchestrated attempt by Obama to show that, see, maybe modern Islamists really can’t run things. They can plant bombs in crowded markets and stage effigy-burning tap dances outside U.S. embassies. But, the question remains: Can they govern large populations? The implicit message here: Morsi, an Islamist, ran a country of 86 million into the ground … if they want to govern and rule with iron-fisted religiosity so bad, let them go ahead and do it.

You do what you do, right?

That may translate into a more gradual, keeping-hands-clean approach that ultimately lets the people decide if they want to be oppressed under the thumb of repressed religious fundamentalists or not.  In the meantime, defiantly delivering F-16s to the Egyptian military maintains the regional peace long enough to keep oil flowing through the Suez Canal while getting countries like Egypt to become less dependent on us. We’ll see how it all plays out.

Charles D. Ellison is Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. You can hear his political analysis every Sunday morning at 9:50am ET on WDAS 105.3 FM. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison

 

  • itaintmojo

    Obama calls it leading from behind. We also got a good look at Obama’s behind when he bowed to the Saudi Sheik.

    Well written article, thanks. However i don’t see what happened last week as a straight forward Military coup. There were 35 million people walking the streets sending their message, before the army moved in. And Morsi’s governing was intolerant of millions of secular Muslims, due to forced Sharia law on them, as well as a financial disaster. Its was coup, with circumstances.

    Also, I won’t buy this author’s suggestion even remotely, that Obama orchestrated this to show the Muslim Brotherhood’s ineptitude to govern. Mubarek’s ouster was approved by Obama. On the other hand, Morsi’s ouster, in Obama’s words, was cause for “concern”. Obama supported Morsi, and gave him, and his Muslim brotherhood Sharia law govt, tanks, planes, guns, and money.

    My guess is that many Americans do not have a full understanding of what Islamic Sharia law represents. Most Americans are not educated on how women are treated and live in Sharia law lives. If Americans knew, they would all agree Sharia law treats its women in a way that is totally unacceptable by North American standards. Horrific does not come close to describing it. As well Sharia law advocates have no tolerance for people who do not adhere to Sharia law. No other religions are respected by Sharia followers, in territories where Sharia law is the law of the land. You comply, or eventually you will be eliminated. An example is the ruthless persecution the Coptic Christians of Egypt must endure now, at the hands of Islamic Sharia law advocates. Americans should learn more about what Sharia is, so they can fully understand how draconian it is. Way worse than communism, which is awful.

    Obama picked the side of Sharia law in Egypt. There are quite possibly 20 million people or more in Egypt out of the 80 million citizens there, who have had 2 Springs now, hoping that secular living would be allowed in Egpyt. Obama turned his back on them with his support for the Morsi Muslim brotherhood Sharia law govt. Obama favored Sharia over millions of people who are freedom seekers. It disturbs me that America is on the side of the bad guys. I’m quite sure the freedom seekers of Egypt consider Obama someone to hate these days. Rightfully so. And not one republican fabricated the story. If 20 million Egyptian’s hate Obama’s guts right now, he has no one to point the finger at but himself, which of course he will never do. Now that has he has a mulligan on Egypt, I would be shocked if Obama used it and did the right thing. Obama won’t turn his back on his best friends out there. Friends like Erdogan of Turkey, and the Suadi Sheik’s. Or his buds from Qatar and UAE. All these friends I mention advocate Sharia law. Obama has no issue with Sharia law., and he seems quite allergic to using the word Sharia about the terrorist that attacked Boston and Fort hood Texas, even though those murderer’s follow Sharia.

  • Nagia Sammakia

    The Muslim Brotherhood are ready to kill the Egyptian Army, because the Muslim Brotherhood leaders are ordering them to terrorize Egyptian citizens and the Army and police. The US has no business telling the army to stop arresting these terrorists. Thirty million as per Google map went out and demonstrated against the Brotherhood. The army gave support to the people and asked Morsi to leave and gave him 48 hours Anne Patterson, the ambassador to the US was against that. The Egyptian revolution was moved by the people and the army as a backup, since the population is not armed to deal with the MB terrorists.