U.S. Messaging Mess in Egypt Complicates Diplomacy

Senator John McCain (L) and Sen. Lindsey Graham listen to a question during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Senator John McCain (L) and Sen. Lindsey Graham listen to a question during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The Obama administration’s efforts to promote democracy in Egypt are being complicated by what many Egyptians see as mixed and confusing messages coming from Washington, exacerbating already high anti-American sentiment and threatening broader U.S. goals in the region.

Any administration might find it difficult to safely navigate the intricacies of Egypt’s current political tumult, but some U.S. officials concede they have been unable to communicate a coherent policy. Officials also complain that their task has been made more challenging by the delicate line they must toe and by members of Congress who have inserted themselves into the high-wire diplomacy with one of America’s most important Arab allies.

Egypt has been a cornerstone of Mideast stability for decades, notably because of its peace deal with Israel and its protection of the vital Suez Canal. The administration has been eager to remain engaged and influential there, but it is straddling a fine line, trying to balance its support for representative government with U.S. national interests.

In Egypt’s crisis, the two do not meld well, and staying involved has required what some see as a compromise in democratic principles.

Several officials lamented that the White House’s nuanced policy is not easily explained to Egypt’s volatile public and wary leaders. And they expressed frustration that the message has been muddled by the comments of lawmakers who have offered strident personal opinions on the situation that do not hew to the administration’s line. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity.

To begin with, they said, President Barack Obama’s approach to Egypt since the military’s July 3 toppling of President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected leader, has appeared beset by uncertainty. For three weeks, administration lawyers and policymakers waffled on the question of whether Morsi’s ouster was a “coup,” a determination that under U.S. law would have forced a cutoff in $1.3 billion in annual military aid and a resulting loss of influence with the armed forces at a crucial time.

In an unusual bit of legal gymnastics, Obama’s national security team decided it didn’t have to determine that either way. By declining to take a position, the administration infuriated Morsi’s Islamist supporters, who have refused to back down on demands that he be returned to power.

At the same time, the administration drew the ire of the military and its supporters by continuing contact with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and sharply criticizing security forces’ tactics against protesters.

Secretary of State John Kerry inflamed the already bubbling mistrust and suspicion by telling an interviewer in Pakistan last week that the Egyptian military had been “restoring democracy” by removing a democratically elected president. The remark drew an immediate and scathing response from the Brotherhood, and a day later Kerry tried to blunt the controversy by calling for all sides “to get back to a new normal.”

Then, on a visit to Cairo, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Morsi’s ouster a “coup.” Although McCain does not set administration policy, he does sit on the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a highly visible former Republican presidential candidate, and is seen by many as an elder statesman with serious clout when it comes to providing aid.

Before leaving, McCain told The Associated Press on Thursday that the administration had wanted him and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to make the trip, but he also said they were speaking only for themselves.

Nonetheless, the administration moved quickly to distance itself from McCain’s comments, which two officials privately described as a “disaster” for Washington’s attempts to clear up misunderstandings. But spokesmen for the White House and State Department declined to disavow or directly criticize McCain or Graham.

Noting that McCain and Graham were not representing the administration, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday, “We are all focused together on the very volatile situation in Egypt, and there is no question that we consult regularly with members of Congress, especially those members like Senators Graham and McCain who have a particularly keen interest in the country and the region.”