When President Barack Obama took time out from his Martha's Vinyard golfing holiday to comment on events in Egypt, he produced an iconic moment of unreality comparable to George W. Bush declaring victory in Iraq from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Obama's lengthy comments have been summarized with the following items
"The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom or that might makes right. And today the United States extends its condolences to the families or those who were killed and those who were wounded. . . .
We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect the universal rights of the people. We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully and condemn the attacks that we've seen by protesters, including on churches. We believe that the state of emergency should be lifted, that a process of national reconciliation should begin, that all parties need to have a voice in Egypt's future, that the rights of women and religious minorities should be respected and that commitments must be kept to pursue transparent reforms to the constitution and democratic elections of a parliament and a president."
The President also may have distanced himself from the actions of the Morsi government in his comments, but those portions are not as clear as his criticism of the military currently in power.
Israeli commentators are close to united in ridiculing the American president. Their common themes, He does not understand; and He is frittering away whatever standing the United States has in this region.
One respected columnist compares Obama to Woodrow Wilson, "The United States already had an experience with a long period in the second term of Woodrow Wilson of a president who could not function. Is Obama the second in this condition of isolation and incapacity?"
Is the Commander in Chief a misfit?
The notion is tempting, but it ain't so simple.
An affirmative response would begin with his performance in the war on terror. To think that supporting the Muslim Brotherhood would advance what is peaceful and decent is to think like those who put the fox to guard the chicken coop. That Obama declared victory in Iraq and significant progress in Afghanistan is also worrisome.
On the other hand, the President spoke shrilly about Egypt, but took no actual steps to sanction its military leadership. He did say, "we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month." However, that cancellation might have come at the initiative of Egyptians who have wasted few words in criticizing American meddling in their affairs, and who might not want to waste resources drilling with the United States that are needed for putting down rebellions in their cities.
The New York Times treated the cancellation as an American initiative, but conceded the limited US leverage.
Despite the large scale of the exercises, and the fact that they date to the 1980s, administration officials said they had few illusions that the decision would by itself stop the crackdown. Egypt’s military leaders, they said, regard the Islamist protests as an “existential threat” to the nation, which they must crush at all costs. . . .
"Though the decision is an embarrassment to Egypt’s generals, and will deprive Egypt of much-needed revenue, it lays bare both the Obama administration’s limited options to curb the military’s campaign against Islamists in Egypt and the United States’ role as an increasingly frustrated bystander. . . .
Repeated pleas from administration officials to the generals to change course have gone unheeded, and the United States’ first punitive measure, a Pentagon delay in the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian Air Force, also had no effect."
President Obama did not even mention the substantial leverage he might employ, i.e., the $1.5 billion in annual aid provided to the Egyptian military and to civilian agencies. While Members of Congress have demanded that aid be suspended, it is involved in US-Egyptian agreements linked to the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty. Its suspension would be a much clearer violation of the commandment, Don't make things worse than anything the President has said to date.
Among the complications in American analyses about Egypt is the substantial support given to the anti-Islamic Egyptian regime by some of the most prominent supporters of Islam. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have pledged loans and grants of $8 billion, which parallels their criticism of American efforts in the Middle East. Jordan is not in a position to send money, but has indicated its support for the current Egyptian regime. The Palestinian Authority (West Bank) has tilted toward the Egyptian military, while the Hamas regime of Gaza supports its parent, the Muslim Brotherhood.
America's overseas clients realize that Americans choose the person who aspires to lead us, and make their choice for reasons that are almost entirely American. Yet the person chosen assumes substantial responsibilities created by predecessors, and proceeds to alter them according to a new agenda.
Pity us that the person chosen are, as in the cases of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, so inexperienced for their international functions, and create damage as they fumble in cultures so foreign to their American roots.
Egypt is still a long way from the level of violence in Syria. Egypt is a relatively homogeneous country. Its prominent divisions--between the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and what may be a secular or indifferent majority, and a troubled Christian minority--are not the same social tinder as the ethnic and religious segments cobbled together as a post-colonial "country" called Syria, and ruled for more than 40 years by an ethnic-religious minority considered by other Muslims to be not really Muslim.
As in the early days of the present Syrian upheaval, the weekly pressure point occurs after Friday prayers, when masses flood the streets after being incited in the mosques. As the weekend approached, the Muslim Brotherhood called for a march of millions in a Day of Fury against the illegal authority of the Egyptian military.
With chaos now to the south as well as the north, and an explosion in the heart of the Hezbollah neighborhood of Beirut that is being routinely blamed on Israel despite an Islamic group claiming credit, it is no surprise that Israelis are asking, "What does all this mean for us?"
There are two parts to this question.
The first concerns a spread of violence. Most immediate is a concern for missile attacks from Sinai, which Israel will be constrained to act against openly on account of Egyptian sensitivities.
The second concerns the negotiations begun after lengthy and difficult efforts by the American government, and likely to be subject to continued prodding by the same American government whose President is putting his verbal weight behind the prospects for human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest as done by Islamists in Egypt, has avoided anything more than tough words for Syria, and has declared his nation's success in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to a recent survey, 79 percent of Israelis do not expect that the present discussions will succeed
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is the wild card in calculations about Israel. He has said time and again that he would make painful concessions for the sake of a two-state solution. He has given to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni the leadership of his negotiating team, and Livni has bet her political future on being able to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
Yet strong voices in Netanyahu's own party are outspoken against the kind of concessions that appear to be essential for keeping the negotiations on track.
What happens over the next few Fridays in Cairo may compete with whatever comes from the United States to affect how Netanyahu decides--either to bring his party with him and the Americans, or to go along with party colleagues who distrust Palestinians and Americans.
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