A Feckless Response to Egypt's Avoidable Massacre

It's time for the U.S. to cut off aid to Egypt.
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Suspects are rounded up near a burnt annex building of Rabaa Adawiya mosque after the clearing of a protest camp in Cairo. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Tepid rationalizations that the United States has "limited leverage" in Egypt or that the Arab Spring is "failing" do not change a basic fact: An U.S.-funded "ally" has carried out one of the largest massacres of protesters in a decade.

It is time for Obama to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. Ending assistance will not curb the behavior of Egypt's increasingly autocratic military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nor will it ease that country's political divide or reduce ant-Americanism. But it will say that the United States actually stands for basic international principals.

Wednesday's killings and events in the Middle East over the last few weeks point to an alarming trend for the Obama White House: Its drone and surveillance-centric approach to counterterrorism is failing. A grim reality is emerging for Americans. The George W. Bush invasion-centric approach to countering militancy failed. And so is the cautious, middle of the road Obama strategy.

From massacres in Cairo to prison breaks across the region, the United States is more hated and less secure. At the same time, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining fighters, propaganda victories and recruiting tools.

The message the White House sent to young Islamists in Egypt this week was clear: What jihadists have been telling you about American hypocrisy for years is true. Democratic norms apply to everyone but you. Participating in elections is pointless. Violence is the route to power. Wherever he is hiding in the mountains of Pakistan, Ayman al Zawahiri is likely pleased.

After golfing for five hours on Wednesday and having drinks with a campaign donor, Obama announced on Thursday morning that the United States was cancelling a military exercise with the Egyptian military and immediately went golfing again. There was no announcement that the administration would cut off the $1.3 billion in annual American aid to Egypt, most of it military.

"The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by the Egyptian interim government and security forces," Obama said. "We deplore the use of violence against civilians."

In a portion of his statement that bordered on lecturing, Obama said it was the responsibility of Egyptian to decide their future. He is correct. But that does not absolve the United States -- the Egyptian military's largest Western backer -- from flatly condemning a coup and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators.

The administration must stop trying to be the opposite of the Bush administration. Speaking boldly about core international principals is not the equivalent of invading Iraq. Consistency is vital.

In Egypt, a false equivalence should not be drawn between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Deposed president Mohammed Morsi was not inclusive and ran the government terribly, but he did not kill hundreds of demonstrators.

The White House deserves credit for dispatching Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to Cairo to try to strike a compromise. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently traveled to Egypt as well. Working with Europe and Arab diplomats, American officials warned Egypt's military ruler against a crackdown. So did Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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