comscore Washington reacts to Egypt crisis with ambivalent aloofness

Washington reacts to Egypt crisis with ambivalent aloofness

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WASHINGTON » In polo shirt, shorts and sandals, President Barack Obama headed to the golf course Friday morning with a couple of old friends, then flew to Camp David for a long weekend. Secretary of State John Kerry was relaxing at his vacation home in Nantucket.

Aides said both men had been updated as increasingly violent clashes left dozens dead in Egypt, but from outward appearances they gave little sense that the Obama administration viewed the crisis in Cairo with great alarm. While U.S. leaders expressed official concern, the unspoken truth is that many of them are at least conflicted and in some cases not all that unhappy about the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.

The relative calm in Washington also reflects a longer-term shift in U.S. relations in the Middle East. While Egypt was once seen as the singular strategic player in the region, today other countries play a larger role. The overriding U.S. interest in Egypt is preserving its three-decade peace with Israel, which officials believe the military is committed to doing.

No major American political figure has overtly endorsed the military seizure of power, but Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood had few friends in Washington when he was elected a year ago and even fewer by the time he fell from power this week. Uncomfortable from the start with the rise of Islamists, even if by a vote broadly deemed democratic, the White House and Congress increasingly viewed Morsi as autocratic and even incompetent.

"If you said to people you can cast a secret ballot on whether to turn back the clock and have Morsi in power again, I don’t think very many people in Washington would turn back that clock," said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush. "They’re just nervous about the implications going forward."

Because the Muslim Brotherhood is hostile to the United States, Abrams said, some Republicans in particular "think this is just plain wonderful." But he and other Republicans as well as a number of Democrats have more mixed feelings.

"There’s some relief about Morsi being gone from the scene, having been a problem," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., a member of the Middle East subcommittee. "On the other hand, there are a lot of us who are never going to be comfortable with military interventions to overthrow a democratically elected government, even one we have issues with."

The Obama administration has reflected that ambivalence. At one point, Obama cultivated a relationship with Morsi and for a while in November thought he could be an effective partner when he helped defuse a crisis in Gaza. But within days, Morsi issued a decree claiming vast new powers, quickly puncturing the optimism in the White House and elsewhere in Washington, even though he later pulled back.

"Washington gave him a pretty good shot at proving the Brotherhood was going to govern democratically, reach out to the opposition and hold parliamentary elections soon after," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt. "Morsi failed on all counts. He proved to be not adept at doing any of these things."

Privately, Obama was frustrated that Morsi had never reached out to the opposition and thought he should be more inclusive, aides said. When the end came at the hands of Egypt’s powerful military this week, Obama issued a written statement saying he was "deeply concerned" and urging the generals to restore a democratic government quickly. But he has made no comments about the matter beyond that.

The president met in the Situation Room on Thursday with his national security team, and the White House released a photograph showing the session. His Cabinet secretaries and top national security aides called various officials in Egypt, Israel and elsewhere. But Obama’s decision to go golfing Friday angered some Egyptians, and the only public comment from the administration as the crackdown in Cairo turned violent came from a State Department spokeswoman urging calm.

Kerry came under even more criticism for sailing off Nantucket on Wednesday as Morsi was being toppled. At first, the State Department denied that he had been on a boat even though a CBS News producer spotted him. By Friday, the department spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki retracted the denial, saying "he was briefly on his boat on Wednesday."

She added that Kerry otherwise "worked around the clock all day" consulting with the White House and calling regional leaders, as well as making five calls that day alone to Ambassador Anne W. Patterson. He participated in Thursday’s Situation Room session by video conference. CBS posted a photo of him on the boat again Friday.

Whatever role the administration is playing behind the scenes, its public reticence suggested its discomfort with choosing sides. In effect, it has accepted Morsi’s ouster and is not seeking to restore him, reasoning that in fact it could turn out for the best if the military quickly brings about new elections. The main priority is minimizing violence and repression of dissent.

Critics said the administration should have been more outspoken about Morsi’s mistakes along the way. "They messed up when they did not speak out about Morsi’s undemocratic ways," said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It fed a narrative that the U.S. was only interested in stability."

The American acceptance of the overthrow was reflected Friday in a statement issued by Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman, and Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat, on the House Foreign Affairs Committee: "Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of these principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat."

Washington’s reaction also reinforced the changing role of Egypt in the region. While the United States continues to provide $1.5 billion a year in aid to Cairo, other states have emerged as muscular players over the years, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and even tiny Qatar.

Still, officials and analysts said, Egypt remains important to the United States. Its peace with Israel is the cornerstone of security for the Jewish state and any future resolution of the conflict with Palestinians. U.S. military deployments to the east depend on the Suez Canal. And Egyptian intelligence has been crucial in the hunt for terrorists.

"If you’re thinking in big global terms, Egypt and the entire Arab world have receded in importance," said Kurtzer, the former ambassador. "But in terms of our immediate interest, Egypt is still important."

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