The best defense I can muster for Team Obama's pathetic response to the events of the last month in Egypt is that the men and women in charge of American foreign policy simply don't mind looking foolish. No, really: Obama has espoused the generally astute opinion that the immediate reaction of the American president is not the most important aspect of every worrying development on the planet. Not all problems can be fixed by a show of American strength or outrage or willpower. And really, in the grand scheme of things, whether the administration looks silly or weak is less meaningful than whether it is effective.
Alas, this quasi-defense doesn't apply in the case of Egypt, where the death toll from the last 24 hours stands above 500. (Injuries are at about 3,700.) Not only has the administration looked weak and unprepared, but it looks unintelligent, too. The New York Times had several superb articles on the "crisis" today—as an aside, I wonder if people would use words like "crisis" if the Iranian mullahs had just slaughtered hundreds of people—but the one that caught my eye concerned the comments from the admistration yesterday. As Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon somewhat snidely (and appropriately) put it:
[Secretary of State] Kerry announced no punitive measures, while President Obama, vacationing here on Martha’s Vineyard, had no public reaction. As his chief diplomat was speaking of a “pivotal moment for Egypt,” the president was playing golf at a private club.
Today, however, President Obama made a longish statement, but he sounded just as vacillating as ever. He began by saying, "The relationship between the United States and Egypt goes back decades," adding pointlessly that Egypt was "an ancient center of civilization." He then said that "the United States strongly condemns" what has happened in the last day, and continued by saying, "We have sustained our commitment" to Egypt, which I assume means aid. The big moment of the speech: when he said he was "cancelling a joint military exercise" with Egypt and was going to "assess implications" with his national security team. "America cannot determine the future in Egypt," he concluded.
It was not an impressive performance. The president kept tripping over himself, first claiming that America follows its values, then talking about American interests, and making no attempt to synthesize the two. His announcement about the military exercise must have the junta in Egypt laughing to themselves, especially if the exercise consisted of shooting unarmed people in the head, which is something they seem good at even without (more) American training. But again, the problem is not that Obama looks weak per se; it's the policy behind the weakness. He hasn't tried to use aid as leverage (and still refuses to use the word "coup"), he hasn't (one assumes) put much pressure on American allies who are backing the Egyptian military, and he hasn't even attempted to lay out the reasons that military rule in Egypt might, in the long term, play against American interests. One need only look to the Middle East and Pakistan to see how military repression can lead to extremism, and rampant anti-Americanism. It was notable that Obama took time to mention that Morsi's undemocratic actions undermined his case for rule, but not that the military's much more violent and undemocratic actions did the same.
Finally, there is the sheer shame. As the administration dithers—and continues to send money to the people committing the actual violence—Egyptian state media is lashing out at America! Here is how Mike Giglio, a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast in Cairo, described the media scene to the Times' Brian Stelter:
"I think a big part of this is the product of the rabid information wars going on right now: Western journalists, and America in general, are being portrayed as enemies — by politicians, by anti-Morsi activists and in the state and private media," Mr. Giglio said, referring to the ousted leader Mohamed Morsi. "People are being told not to trust the international press, because what it’s reporting doesn’t always fit with the government’s media narrative, and that narrative is extremely important to them right now. I think this is fueling intense paranoia and anger toward the international media in Egypt, and I think I saw an effect of that today, whatever else may have also been at play."
Americans should ponder why they are helping to pay for the state media's content, and the men who are responsible for airing it.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.