My policy on the Egypt debate is to be charitable, assuming that no-one has a full handle on things. For example, when a commenter recommended a Spengler column that savaged the Reuel Marc Gerecht essay I had partially recommended, I was pretty repelled, even though I had rejected Gerecht’s main conclusions. And all these last two years, I have not joined the many conservative voices in saying that Obama was a fool (or worse) in running with the idea that some elements in the Muslim Brotherhood could be reasoned with.
And I have had great respect for Robert Kagan. I thought his “On Power and Paradise” essay outstanding in its analysis of European opposition to Bush-era U.S. anti-terrorism policy. If that makes me a foreign policy neo-con, I’m happy to plead guilty.
But with respect to his recent WP column, I suspend all claims of charity and respect. On Egypt, Robert Kagan has lost it.
It is a shocking column. He pronounces that
Today the most destabilizing force in Egypt is the military itself. It is the greatest obstacle to any hope of political reconciliation and stability.
More destabilizing than Islamism?
And no mention of the sheer backwardness of most of the population? Of the looming possibility of famine? (Spengler is good on those two.) Of the intemperate demands and fragmentation of the liberal and secularist parties? (See Gerecht.) Does the commanding role of the military in Egyptian society have no relation to all those?
Kagan does not support the recent coup. And, he wants the U.S. to threaten aid cuts unless the Egyptian military stop bullying the Brotherhood. Okay, but notice how he phrases this:
Our only hope of turning the situation in a more positive direction is to make unmistakably clear to the military that the path it is on will lead to an end of U.S. assistance and international isolation.
But he offers no guidance about what an Unmistakeably Unacceptable clamp-down would consist of. If they don’t fire on protestors/street-fighters, but still do long-term imprisonments, would that be okay? Tear-gas in the squares acceptable? Will an actual pattern of beatings, a la Muburak, be accepted, so long as the spokesmen denounce the very idea of these in fine speeches? Or will we demand a clean bill of NGO-monitored no-beatings-whatsoever health? If the Brotherhood is banned from running candidates, as recent reports suggest it will be, is that acceptable? What if it were permitted to remain a legal association, but not a party?
No, Kagan doesn’t want to get into any of that. What he’s against is the path the military rulers are on. Does he say to what sort of regime their path leads to? No. Were he to speculate about that, he might have to admit that there are several sorts of military-led regimes, some worse than others. Does he say to what sort of regime their path ought to lead to, given what is possible for Egypt? No, he neglects the fundamentals–he finds it better to focus on the outrage of 100 protesters killed, and America doing nothing about it.
My sense is that like Gerecht, Kagan was hoping that the moderate elements in the Brotherhood could be tempered by their participation in democratic governance, and thus be split off from the really bad Islamists. Again, even if I largely disagreed with it, in my judgment it was a hope at least plausible, prior to the events of “Morsi’s Year.” But Kagan acts as if the last year did not happen. Worse, he insults everyone’s intelligence with junk like this:
As a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently told Post columnist David Ignatius, the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda. The Brotherhood renounced violence and terrorism years ago. But that could change in response to the military’s actions.
Kagan reduces reasonable worry about intellectual and tactical connections between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda to the straw-man assumption that They Are The Same.
And then he Informs us that years ago, don’t you know, the Brotherhood renounced violence?!?!
Did Robert Kagan really write that? With no qualification or explanation? It is so sickeningly off, so inappropriate given the blood-curdling threats issued and the all-too real bloodshed instigated by the Brotherhood over the last year, that I just don’t know what to say.
Look, if Kagan simply believed we’re at a critical moment in which only the deployment of U.S.-led pressure will keep the Egyptian military from going too far in its clamp-down, while he nonetheless was prepared to accept either a truncated-democracy or an outright return of Mubarak-style dictatorship for Egypt’s near-future, well, that would be one thing; that would be an argument we would need to consider.
But it’s much more than that for him. He acts as if every decent human being knows we must demand liberal democracy in Egypt. If we had a State Dept. guided by Kagan, Egypt’s government would not simply be threatened today with aid cut-offs for shooting 100 protesters, but put on notice that it might be tomorrow for disqualifying the Brotherhood, and the next day for inadequately preventing female circumcision, or who knows what.
Gerecht, and the Obama administration, were prepared to give a Brotherhood-led parliamentary republic the stamp of basic legitimacy, despite all the obvious illiberal abuses it would have brought about even if it had lived up to the most optimistic hopes. My guess is Kagan was also. And until Kagan gets more specific, it now sounds like he wants such legitimacy to be perpetually withheld from any military-led government, or even any partially-democratic government that excludes the Brotherhood.
Kagan once had a plausible-enough idea about the Brotherhood, but he refuses to admit it has suffered a decisive defeat, at least for a generation. And thus he also refuses to face the choice between lesser evils that is now before Egypt. Like so many, including far too many Egyptians, he is in a denial that mistakes intransigent opposition to any non-democratic action for an automatic pathway to a sustainable democratic regime. I’m no Egypt hand, but still, you can compare my Facing the Likelihood of Mubarak II essay with his column for a full sense of his denial.