The Obama administration has botched its Egypt policy for years and its handling of the recent coup is more of the same, warns former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The administration made very few public statements up to and during the coup. In his main remarks following the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, President Obama chided Morsi for not responding to the demands of the people but also scolded the military for removing a duly elected leader. He also told Americans and the world that the United States cannot dictate the course of events in Egypt.
Bolton told WND the president was unimpressive in response to the crisis, but he claims that's nothing new.
"I think he's handled it badly in the last few days, but I think he's handled it badly for the last two-and-a-half years. It's been one mistake after another," Bolton said. "By the time you get to evaluating how we have done in the past week, you'd have to view it against a long, long period of mishandling before that."
Bolton said there is some truth in Obama's comments about the extent of U.S. influence, but the ambassador added that the president is underestimating what clout we do have.
"It is true. We do not have unlimited influence in Egypt. We can't snap our fingers and have it turn out the way we want. But saying we don't have unlimited influence is not saying the same thing as saying we have no influence. There, I think, the absence of clear American leadership has cost us a great deal," Bolton said. "Not only have we not had public statements by the president or the secretary of state, we haven't had much behind-the-scenes activity, either. That leaves people very uncertain about what is to come next, and it gives some support to the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea that if they just tough it out long enough, they might yet end up back in power."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the Obama administration will take plenty of time before determining whether the Egyptian military's removal of Morsi constitutes a coup. The review is due largely to U.S. law forbidding additional foreign aid to any nation where a democratically elected leader is forced from power. Bolton said the administration's semantics exercise is ridiculous.
"Of course it was a coup. I don't think any of us gain anything by trying to obscure what actually happened," Bolton said. "I think the way you deal with the prohibition on foreign assistance in the statute is to go to Congress directly and say we need to fix this. We need to make it absolutely clear that it's in America's national interest that we find a way to support the interim government and the military.
"Yet, the Obama administration takes what appears to be its preferred route of twisting the meaning of a statute all out of proportion to what the words of the statute actually say. That doesn't benefit the United States government, and it doesn't benefit, frankly, trust and credibility of the president," he said.
But for all his criticism of the Obama policy on Egypt, Bolton sees the developments in Egypt as positive and a potential catalyst for change in the region.
"I think it will have a ripple effect. I think the struggle between the radical Islamists, who are often allied with terrorists, and other forces that want a secular democratic government in many Middle Eastern countries. They're going to watch what happens in Egypt very carefully," Bolton said. "This is much more important than Syria. Egypt has a population of 70-80 million people, far and away the largest Arab country. So what happens there makes a huge difference, and so too does the role of the United States have a ripple effect around the region as well.
"So it's troubling the United States is absent, not just because of it's impact in Egypt, but because of it's impact across the region," he said.
The ambassador said America has several major national security interests in Egypt, so getting this policy right is important.
"We do have an interest in a stable Egyptian government that can uphold the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel, keep the Suez Canal open and ensure some measure of order in Egypt so that religious minorities like the Coptic Christians are not trampled and to get the Egyptian economy back on its feet obviously requires order as well," he said.
Bolton isn't sure whether the clashes between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood will escalate into something more more serious since he believes Morsi supporters are deeply divided on whether to force a confrontation with the military. He is confident that the Muslim Brotherhood instigated violence with the military in recent days to claim martyrs for their cause.
He also favors a lengthy stretch before new elections in Egypt. Bolton said a short schedule is how the Muslim Brotherhood successfully gained power in the wake of Hosni Mubarak's fall from the presidency in 2011.
In the final analysis, Bolton said the Egyptian military did the right thing and really had limited choices.
"The military did not have much of an option," he said. "We saw in the days before it issued the ultimatum, millions of Egyptians demonstrating in the streets demonstrating against the Muslim Brotherhood, with every prospect that the pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the anti-Muslim Brotherhood advocates would end up fighting in the streets. I think the military, which prizes order and stability, didn't want to let that happen."