President Barack Obama on Thursday denounced the massacre of protesters by Egypt’s military-led interim government and announced he had canceled a major joint military exercise in response — but kept American aid dollars flowing.
“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said in a brief statement from his Martha's Vineyard vacation spot.
"As a result, this morning, we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month," the president said, warning that the U.S. response may not stop there.
"Going forward, I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship," Obama said.
His remarks came a day after Egyptian government forces launched a violent assault on demonstrators, with a death toll running in the hundreds. The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry had denounced the bloody crackdown without announcing concrete steps to try to pressure Egypt's government to fulfill its pledges of restoring democratic rule to the longstanding U.S. ally.
The latest violence left Obama facing two burning crises in the Middle East — the other is Syria’s civil war, with a death toll of more than 100,000 people. The two conflicts have fueled fierce criticism at home of his handling of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
"Let me say that the Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. And to the Egyptian people, let me say the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop," Obama said.
U.S. leverage is limited. In addition to scrapping the so-called "Bright Star" military exercises, the government could freeze the roughly $1.5 billion in annual aid it provides to Egypt, but help from other countries like Saudi Arabia is currently far more generous. Washington could withhold individual arms packages. It could seek some sort of diplomatic condemnation, like calling the U.S. ambassador home for consultations.
But Obama stuck by his administration’s decision not to formally label the ouster of deposed President Mohammed Morsi by the military a “coup,” a step that under U.S. law would require suspending American aid.
“We appreciate the complexity of the situation. While Mohammed Morsi was elected president in a democratic election, his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians,” Obama said.
“While we do not believe that force is the way to resolve political differences, after the military’s intervention several weeks ago there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path,” the president said. "Instead, we’ve seen a more dangerous path taken.”
That path has included arbitrary arrests Washington considers politically motivated, as well as a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that powered Morsi’s election victory, and finally this week’s bloodbath.
“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said. “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 of those who were killed and those who were wounded.”
Obama pressed the interim government to lift the state of emergency that it imposed on Wednesday — a step amounting to martial law — and called for a process of national political reconciliation to begin.
America believes “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.”
He also had a message for the demonstrators amid reports that some have assailed Christian churches. While the country is largely Muslim, about 10 percent of Egyptians are Christian.
“We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully and condemn the attacks that we’ve seen by protesters, including on churches,” the president said.
Obama called for the toxic anti-American sentiment in Egypt to ease.
“I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong,” Obama said.
“We’ve been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We’ve been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve," Obama said.
“We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work,” he said.
The path out of military rule to democratic governance will “not always go in a straight line,” he said. “There will be difficult days.”
“We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years but sometimes in generations."
Beyond Syria and Egypt, Obama’s foreign policy woes include a high-profile feud with Russian President Vladimir Putin that has driven U.S.-Russian relations to their worst level in years.
And many U.S. allies have been treating Washington with suspicion bordering at times on hostility over revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of American spying on its partners.
Legacy-minded presidents tend to turn to foreign policy in their second terms because they have more control than they do over domestic policy. But increasingly Obama’s best hope for a victory looks like a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy, though a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan or a breakthrough in the tense standoff with Iran over that country’s suspected nuclear weapons program would likely restore his standing.
“From Benghazi to Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad we're failing across the board. President Obama's foreign policy is not working,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Twitter. Graham has repeatedly warned that Egypt might become a “failed state.”
From Benghazi to Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad we're failing across the board. President Obama's foreign policy is not working.
— Lindsey Graham (@GrahamBlog) August 15, 2013
It’s not clear why Egypt would be more likely to become a failed state — one with weak central authority and limited control over its own territory — rather than see the military consolidate power behind a presidential figure.
But that would be an ominous outcome: Imagine a country of 85 million people, neighbor to Israel, home to the vital Suez Canal shipping passage, slipping into (further) chaos.
At the State Department's daily briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked whether Obama's policy toward Egypt was worthy of a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner. "Yes," she said curtly.
In fact, a look at Obama's December 2009 Nobel acceptance speech shows that his approach to this kind of dilemma has held relatively constant.
"The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy," he said in that address.
"I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."