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A Reality-Driven Foreign Policy?

In the beginning, President Obama really thought he could change the world. And he had specific plans to do so, both here and abroad.

In the Middle East he resolved to bring the Arab countries into the 21st century by promoting democratic elections to rid the region of its despots. He ignored what he knew from his own experience as a community organizer and presidential candidate – namely, that elections go to the better organized – and ignored the lesson learned by his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose own vision of a Democratic Middle East was dealt a severe blow when the organized and motivated Hamas swamped the feckless Fatah in the U.S.-supported parliamentary election in Gaza in 2006.

In his Cairo speech a few months after taking office, Mr. Obama called for free and democratic elections and promised, as incentive, to retool U.S. relations with the Muslim world. The president’s words gained immediate traction, and within a year what became known as the Arab Spring was in full bloom. But it quickly became obvious that old dictators were being replaced by new autocrats obsessed with exercising power for its own sake and waging war on political rivals with scant attention paid to the wishes and needs of the people.

In Egypt, to cite the most pertinent example, Egyptian voters, after forcing Hosni Mubarak out of office through massive demonstrations and the assistance of the military, proceeded to elect one of the leaders of the radical fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, as president. Mr. Morsi thereupon proceeded to pack the government with members of the Brotherhood and sought to rule by decree. He also tried to ensure that the new constitution would be written by Islamists and he removed judges who opposed him.

The Obama administration’s careful and nuanced reaction to Mr. Morsi’s eviction from office last week at the hands of the Egyptian military suggests that President Obama has abandoned the simplistic notion that elections themselves necessarily result in governmental legitimacy. This is being played out in terms of whether the U.S. will cut off financial aid to Egypt until new elections are held.

U.S. law could not be plainer. Thus, Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act provides that

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such country if the President determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.

We note that there is no provision for a waiver of this provision.

Yet despite the very public role of the Egyptian military in the ouster of Mr. Morsi, President Obama has referred to U.S. support for “a set of core principles, including opposition to violence” and “a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties.“

He also said the U.S. is “committed to the democratic process and respect for the rule of law.” But he studiously avoided characterizing the military’s role as a “coup,” saying only that “The United States is monitoring the very fluid situation in Egypt” and that given the recent developments, he had “directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the government of Egypt.” He also called on the Egyptian military “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible….”

When asked directly whether President Obama viewed the Egyptian army’s actions as a coup, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “We are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place. This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation.”

Clearly, Mr. Obama could have called the ouster of Morsi a “coup” and cut off aid. But he didn’t, choosing a more deliberate and measured response. Significantly, he called for a return to “a democratically elected civilian government” without mentioning Mr. Morsi in that context. Indeed, we are encouraged that Mr. Obama seems to have abandoned his earlier notions about the sanctity of elections regardless of context and seems instead to be trying to pursue U.S. interests regardless of labels.

At the same time, however, we cannot simply ignore U.S. law because it is inconvenient. We have seen that sort of thing in the Obama administration before with regard to immigration and national security issues, among others. There is, of course, precedent for presidential requests to Congress for enactment of special waiver power, as in the case of the military coup in Pakistan after 9/11. Given the lack of support for Mr. Morsi in Congress, such legislation may not be too difficult to achieve.

To be sure, Mr. Obama may have some wiggle room even under current law. While Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the budget committee that oversees foreign aid, has declared that “[the] law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” there is an alternative view now emerging.

Some of Mr. Morsi’s opponents and members of Congress are arguing that what occurred in Cairo was not a coup as defined by the statute. They note that the military took action only after demonstrations by millions of Egyptians against Mr. Morsi’s policies indicated the extent of public discontent. “It’s not a coup because the military did not take power,” said Mohamed Tawfik, Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S. “The military did not initiate it. It was a popular uprising. The military stepped in order to avoid violence.”

In any event, we continue to be encouraged by the ongoing indications that President Obama seems to have abandoned his earlier, dangerously sophomoric, approach to the Middle East. This holds the promise of a more realistic U.S. policy for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s second term.

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