Following this administration’s Egypt line of thinking, there would have been little reason to oppose the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime. True, he is a blood-lust dictator, but Assad certainly could help when it comes to containing al-Qaida. But oppose we did, though not to the degree America’s hard-liners wanted.
How strange it is, then, that the U.S. is kowtowing to the brutal dictators in control of Egypt. Now that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has gotten “elected” as head of state after a brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and even with the convictions of three Al-Jazeera reporters whose crime was that they were simply doing their jobs, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo, effectively kissing Sisi’s ring. Kerry made a few pro forma whimpers about human rights and press freedom, as did the White House, but his main mission was to put relations between the countries back on an even keel.
There are compelling arguments for doing that: cooperation in the war on terror for one, Suez Canal access and certainly protection of Israel. There always are justifications, and the Americans were never enamored of the Muslim Brotherhood. Besides, let’s face it, the Obama administration certainly does not put press freedom at the top of its priority list. So, despite an outcry from international media organizations, there was little meaningful pressure on the general to do anything but refuse to interfere with the decision by the judges to send the Al-Jazeera reporters to long terms in prison.
Never mind that his courts have meted out death sentences against Brotherhood supporters as if the judges were from Texas, and never mind that in the case of the journalists, there was no evidence that they had spread lies and fomented violence: The guys had simply said stuff the generals didn’t like. End of story. End of freedom. And by normalizing relations with Egypt’s government, the U.S. government is complicit.
It is possible, of course, that Kerry and his counterparts came up with some secret agreements that will end up with the reporters’ release, but there’s also principle involved, and it requires American officials to speak loudly: Those who deny fundamental freedoms should not get any support from the United States, certainly not tons of financial aid.
That goes not just for Egypt but for other countries that are valuable allies, like Saudi Arabia. Our professional diplomats will tell us that is naive, that there are those damnable realities that require America to swallow hard — oil, for example. Maybe so, but then we could make things a lot easier by simply staying out of everything. Everywhere. Taliban brutalizing women? No worries. Same with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fanatics tearing Iraq apart; isn’t it time to conclude that Iraq isn’t our problem and focus on punishing those who sent more than 4,000 Americans to their deaths, along with thousands upon thousands in this country alone who were maimed?
For what? To foster democracy? You mean like we’re doing in Egypt? Remember the Arab Spring? The results are certainly a mixed bag, but in many cases, we’re in an Arab Fall, with dictators replaced by chaos and the United States scorned in many of those countries.
World affairs are mind-bogglingly complicated. Simplistic concepts like freedom and democracy just scratch the sound-bite surface of the TV screen. They are no match for the real-life intrigue and ambition on the ground. Meanwhile, the shining example of the United States of America quickly tarnishes.
So there was John Kerry, making his Middle East crisis tour, trying to convince the parties that the U.S. isn’t too weak to muscle them, and the people back home wondering how this could have caught our intelligence apparatus by such surprise. Maybe our spooks were too busy spying on Americans. All that is left now is to try to save face as we abandon our ideals.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.