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U.S. Right to 'Lead From Behind' on Egypt

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

 "Leading from behind" would seem the right place for America to be in the complex crisis engulfing Egypt. But critics want President Obama up front, telling the Egyptians what's what.

Sen. John McCain complains on a Sunday talk show that Egypt's second coup in 2 1/2 years is "a strong indicator of the lack of American leadership, and influence, since we urged the military not to do that."

The Arizona Republican goes on to insist that the leadership deficit is wrecking the whole Mideast. Citing the troubles in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain says, "When American doesn't lead, bad things happen."

Now, can we seriously believe that a call from the president, even a stern call, would stop the whirlwind of conflict in Egypt? Sure we could threaten the $1.5 billion we give them in annual aid, but the new people in charge say they intend to reset the democracy and are friendlier to the United States. That's not going to happen.

In Egypt we saw a democratically elected president deposed for undemocratic behavior (and incompetent governing). A tough call for us, but must the United States publicly pick sides in a struggle that (a) we cannot control and (b) U.S. participation only complicates?

Naturally, both sides blame America, insisting that U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is plotting with their foes. The following quotes from The New York Times show our dilemma:

Mona Mohammed, a bank clerk supporting the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi: "The ambassador is part of a conspiracy against Egypt and its people."

Mohammed Amr-All, a professor at a pro-Morsi demonstration: "The ambassador meets with the opposition and supports them."

Back in the United States, Patterson's to blame, as well. Conservative David Brooks writes: "She tried to build relationships with whoever is in power. This created the appearance that she is subservient to the Brotherhood. It alienated the Egyptian masses."

Of course, building relationships with whoever is in power is an ambassador's job, and Morsi was elected. And what about the pro-Muslim Brotherhood masses now protesting the Morsi ouster? Clearly, there are masses for every viewpoint.

Writing in The New Republic, Marc Tracy offers an "appropriate liberal response." That would be "making clear that we value democracy," while using the tools of diplomacy "to put ourselves and our allies in more certain positions when democracy, as it inevitably does, winds up giving us unwelcome surprises."

You wonder what "more certain positions" would be in the case of Egypt's unfolding chaos. Perhaps they don't exist -- or put another way, the position we should have taken will be revealed by history, long after the dust settles on the tragic convulsions in Egypt.

The European Union is quietly talking to all sides, as is the Obama administration. But Obama's cautionary approach is not the American way, says a punditry frustrated that we aren't using our power to do whatever. Perhaps it should be in certain disordered situations, which describes almost every Mideast crisis.

To do otherwise means choosing from equally unattractive options and taking the inevitable blowback from the side we don't seem to be supporting -- which, as we see in Egypt, tends to be both sides.

More McCain: "Morsi was a terrible president. Their economy is in terrible shape thanks to their policies. But the fact is, the United States should not be supporting this coup."

The fact is, we are not supporting the coup. As Obama told a National Security Council meeting over the weekend, "The United States is not aligned with, and does not support, any particular Egyptian political party or group." Lack of leadership? No, the only sensible response at this time.

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