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