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Ethics And Public Policy Center Fellow Pete Wehner On The Way Forward In Egypt

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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HH: I am joined now by Pete Wehner, senior fellow of the Ethics And Public Policy Center as I continue my focus this hour on what the administration ought to be doing in Egypt, and not doing. Pete, welcome, it’s great to talk to you.

PW: Thanks, Hugh, it’s great to be on with you.

HH: The first question, the one on, I tried to get Senator Rand Paul to join me today, he is in favor of cutting off military aid. John McCain wants to cut off military aid. What do you think about that?

PW: I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it would do several bad things. The first thing it would do is send a signal that we actually were against the military counter-coup, and that we wish Morsi was in power, and that we would go back to that situation. Secondly, it would squander the one real bit of leverage that we have with the Egyptian military. So to the degree that we can channel this new revolution in the right direction, it’s in part through aid. And to cut it off now, I think, would be a disastrous step.

HH: Now Pete, I think part of the problem, and I wanted to throw this specifically at you, Pete worked for former President Bush in the White House. Former President Bush was always careful to say we are not at war with Islam. We have no world conflict of civilization, but we have a real problem with organizations that are bent on terrorism, and organizations that are bent on non-democratic means. Now the Muslim Brotherhood presents itself as promoting democracy, and as the victim of a coup. And so some of our commentators, and some of our political actors, are frozen, I think in large part because they don’t want to be understood to be against Islam. Is that what’s really going on here?

PW: Yeah, look, I think it’s a good inside. I mean, I think there’s several things going on. It’s not in the DNA of the American people to support military coups or military counter-coups. We just don’t like them, and we don’t like them for good and understandable reasons. But on the other hand, one has to be reasonable here. And you know, you have to will the means to will the ends. And it’s I think a profound confusion to mistake elections for democracy. You can’t have a free society without elections. But just because you don’t, just because you have elections doesn’t mean you’re a free society. And if you have somebody like Morsi who has used a single election to systematically crush democracy and democratic institutions in a country like Egypt, I don’t think we’re obligated to support him. The other point I’d make is that we’ve had experience in the past with elections that have gone awry in the world, in 1933 in Germany, when Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. So sometimes, elections can go badly. They happened during our watch here in the Bush administration when Hamas won an election. That happens sometimes. But as I say, we’re not obligated, I don’t think, as Americans, either morally or by our self-interest, to support regimes or individuals who are committed to destroying, really, the fundamental rights that make up democracy as we understand it.

HH: Yeah, I formed my view of the Muslim Brotherhood from the book, The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright. And he digs into Banna, the founder of it, and of course Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation and everything that happened through the years, that Zawahiri and the other Brothers were in jail. It’s an organization about which we ought to be very, very suspicious, at best tentative. But I don’t know that anyone’s made that argument, yet. It certainly didn’t occur on your watch to make that argument, because they were a banned organization in Egypt. The Arab Spring brought them into the open. The Arab Spring brought them to power. Is President Obama doing what he needs to do to underscore that there are legitimate political parties and illegitimate political parties?

PW: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that he is. I think President Obama’s more fundamental problem is that he has been so passive in his foreign policy toward the Middle East, and really the world at large, but we’re talking here about the Middle East specifically, that he doesn’t shape events when you have an opportunity to do it. And when you don’t do that, events get out of control. You are at the mercy of, and you don’t have the capacity to shape them. And then you get to a certain point in which your options are really limited as we are now. We’re in a very, very difficult situation. And you know, and my view of supporting the military in their counter-coup against Morsi is not a position I’m fully comfortable with. I just think it’s the best of bad options. But you know, this is a hard situation, and I must say, Hosni Mubarak deserves a lot of the blame for this, too, because the fact is that he was a repressive dictator. It’s not by accident that you had the Arab Spring. And indeed, the Arab Spring was not something that was generated by us in America. This was a spontaneous, organic uprising by the people of Egypt, and that came, as you know, after what had happened in Tunisia. And there was pressure on Mubarak. And a lot of people made efforts, including our administration, for him to make the kind of reforms that could have kept what happened from happening. But he didn’t do it, and the Muslim Brotherhood stayed underground, but organized politically. So when this thing broke open during the Tahrir Square revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood was the best organized political party, and they won. They won narrowly, but they won.

HH: So Pete Wehner, looking forward, they’re going to have this roadmap, a four and a half, a five month roadmap. And they’re going to have to decide who gets to run and who doesn’t get to run. Should the United States support the exclusion of Morsi from that if the military government and their civilian allies ban him? And should we recognize that the Brotherhood may become again an illegitimate political party in Egypt?

PW: Yeah, you know, it’s a trick situation, and I’ll tell you why, because, and I frankly don’t have enough information to make that judgment. And the reason I pause on it is it could well be that if the United States publicly says that you’re going to exclude the Brotherhood, that could be, frankly, counterproductive for our purposes, and for the purposes of the forces that want to prevail in Egypt. So I just think it’s a prudential judgment. I do think that the Brotherhood has shown their true colors, at least as represented by Morsi. And we don’t want to revisit this issue. My own guess here, and it’s a tentative guess, is that the Egyptian military is not anxious to govern in Egypt. That’s really not what they want. They had a fairly rough go of it after Mubarak was overthrown. And so I think they want to hand power over to secular forces, but it’s not going to be easy. And you’ve got to be careful. This is a very, very tight rope to walk, because if you begin saying that there are certain groups that are going to be excluded, per se, then that can make the elections themselves illegitimate.

HH: I know, I know, that’s the tricky line. Bret Stephens argued yesterday this is exactly the time for America to intervene with massive amounts of aid in order to come…

PW: I think that’s right.

HH: Do you agree with that?

PW: I do. I think that we have this certain moment. I think a lot of commentators are underestimating the capacity of America still to act. Look, I know it’s late in the day, and that we squandered a lot of opportunities. But if you combine military aid with our influence on the IMF, with our influence with other countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, which could actually do quite a lot to take some of the pressure off the Egyptians in terms of the gas lines and so forth, I think you could make a difference. Look, if I were in the White House right now, I would think of this in three incremental steps. I think the first thing that our policy has to be geared toward is to stabilize the situation, to keep this thing from turning into a kind of Syrian or Algerian civil war. So that’s the first situation. The second thing is I think you just have to use the leverage you have with the Egyptian military to move it towards a secular government, which I think they are open to. And I think you’ve got to work to make sure that Egypt doesn’t become a magnet for al Qaeda.

HH: Amen. Amen to that. Pete Wehner of the Ethics And Public Policy Center, thank you, Pete.

End of interview.

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