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Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens On How The U.S. Should Approach Egypt Now

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. Bret, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you.

BS: Good to be on the show, Hugh.

HH: You know, I would love to talk with you today about your column on the oil disaster in Canada, because it’s a brilliant piece of work, and I would encourage everyone to go to www.wallstreetjournal.com and read about the environmentalist crazy think that leads to that kind of a disaster. But I actually called to talk to you about the Middle East, and draw on your expertise there, because I think the United States…

BS: Another source of insanity.

HH: I know, but today, the Egyptian military mowed down, I’m using harsh terms, 50 civilians, and 450 were wounded, and state television admits that. They say they were shot at first, but I know what the American media is going to do to this like we do with any kind of massacre of people who can at any time be made to be victims. It’s going to come down immediately to are we going to cut off aid to the Egyptian military? What is your take on this development?

BS: Well, I hope we don’t cut off aid to the Egyptian military. That’s not to sanction what the killing that was done earlier today. It’s just to say we shouldn’t cut off our nose to spite our face. The aid to the military is the one piece of leverage that we have over the military, over the now-essentially, the government. And frankly, if the Morsi people, the Muslim Brotherhood, were to return to power, we would probably be seeing, be witnessing massacres on a much larger scale, over which we would have no control at all. You know, and Napoleon once told one of his generals, he said if you start to take Vienna, take it. And I think the lesson here is if you start a coup, you have to complete it. That is to say that the military needs to consolidate its powers as quickly as it can, and then move swiftly from there to a reformist political course, and above all, an economic course that leads to some kind of economic stability in Egypt, because that’s really the part of the story that gets no play, Hugh, that this was a country in an accelerated state of collapse when the generals decided to intervene.

HH: Bret, that’s correct, and it brings us, and you’re absolutely right about taking Vienna when Chavez was overthrown in 2002, for 48 hours, he came back and systematically dispatched everyone who had attempted to move against him, despite his protest that he would be a reasonable person. On the other hand, we don’t want another Diem on our hands where the United States arranged for the coup of the former president of South Vietnam, and he ended up dead. What do you think the Egyptians do with Morsi, because he remains a very potent symbol for the Brotherhood?

BS: Look, this is not Diem, and this is not the United States that’s set up a scheme to kill the leader of another country. This is an entirely internal political affair. That’s a fantastic question that you’re asking. I’m not sure it’s one that’s necessarily relevant to this administration, except to say that we do not want a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood, whether it’s Morsi or his colleagues, people like Khairat al-Shatr, have an opportunity to come back to power, because we have already offered effectively our tacit support for what is going on. So to help inaugurate a system in which Morsi has a chance of getting back to power is to lead to the worst possible situation – an emboldened, embittered, vengeful Muslim Brotherhood back in power, prepared to exact its vengeance on the people who opposed it, and prepared to take an even more anti-American line than the one that is was adopting before this coup.

HH: I agree. That is the worst result. Here’s the problem, and I’ve had callers raising this all day. And I’ve talked to John Burns and Jeffrey Goldberg and Michael Rubin today about this. And we all agree on the best case, which is to keep the Brotherhood out. But we’ve legitimized the Brotherhood in the United States. And now the president of the United States has basically said they have to be back in the government when in fact I think we need to be telling the American people they are not a legitimate political force. They’re like Hamas, and that once you take that wall down, it’s very hard, Bret Stephens, to put it back up.

BS: And you know, that’s exactly right. Look, it’s hard to undo the damage this administration has already done, Hugh, but one way of putting it, one thing that could be done at least rhetorically is to describe this not so much as a coup but as a counter-coup. People say that what was overthrown was an elected government. Well, yes, but what was also overthrown was a government that had arrogated to itself borderline dictatorial powers within four or five months of coming to office. Morsi was elected in June. By November, he was saying that his decrees were above the law. So there’s an argument to be made that this was a preemptive strike against a government that was moving to assume, essentially, dictatorial control over Egypt. It’s worth, you know, memories in this country tend to be very short, but it’s worth recalling that 14 million Egyptians came into the streets to protest an Islamist government. That might have been our last, best chance to prevent Egypt’s slide, previously a pillar of American power in the Middle East, Egypt’s slide into becoming a Sunni version of Iran. So to the extent that we can, not necessarily openly or boasting about it, to the extent that we can make sure that this transition to a secular leadership succeeds, we should be doing that. We should be providing food aid, we should be encouraging the Saudis to open the oil spigots so the gas lines get shorter in Cairo. We should do what we can to create stability behind this government.

HH: And Bret Stephens, Michael Rubin made the great point we have to support the military’s systematic satirization of the Morsi incompetence, because that’s been very powerful. But here’s the question for the American media. I turned on all day long, I was at a conference, I had been watching, we’re covering the Zimmerman trial. And the future of the Middle East, and thus of the world economy is on the line. I don’t know that the American people have any idea what the stakes are in Egypt.

BS: Well, you know, what you’re touching on goes to a larger point, which is that I think a lot of Americans have sort of thrown up their hands and said look, there’s nothing we can do about places like Egypt or Syria, and frankly, all we’ll do by interfering is probably making things worse. That’s an abdication of America’s power. It’s an abdication of the responsibilities the U.S. assumed after the Second World War, which created a remarkably peaceful and stable world order in which free societies had a chance to grow. There’s a kind of new isolationism afoot in the United States which is, I think, scary and which ignores some pretty potent lessons. I think it has to do with the passing of the Second World War generation that remembers what was wrought by the isolationist policies before Pearl Harbor.

HH: Yeah, that’s a very good rejoinder. John Burns, for whom I have enormous respect, said look, we’ve got to face it, there’s not much we can do. But you just rattled off a number of things, I don’t want to use the cliché a Marshall Plan for Egypt, but we really need a Marshall Plan for Egypt if we want the cornerstone of the Arab world to stay stable.

BS: Look, one of the things, this is a bankrupt government. We have enormous leverage over the IMF. We have enormous leverage over the kinds of loans we can get. You go to the Nile River Delta, you see the children have been stunted in their growth, because they’re so deprived of proteins and food stuffs. We should be shipping wheat flour with big ‘Gift Of The USA’ lettering on it in Arabic, to make clear that we are feeding the Egyptian people. It’s not only, that would not only be a humanitarian gesture, it would be a strategically clever one to make. And I don’t think, look, the United States can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do nothing, either.

HH: Well said. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, thank you.

End of interview.

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