Politics & Policy

How Obama Caused the Gaza War

(Pool Image/Getty Images)
By promoting democracy blindly, and with a bias for the Muslim Brotherhood, he empowered Hamas.

It was the election and brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (under Mohamed Morsi) in Egypt that was the proximate cause of the Gaza war. It was the earlier election of the Muslim Brotherhood (in its Hamas incarnation) in Gaza that was the underlying cause. And it was unwise U.S. demands on Egypt and Palestine — demands that they hold elections and let Muslim religious parties run in them — that led to these twin evils.

Additional tunnels between Gaza and Egypt were constructed during Morsi’s year in power (June 2012 to July 2013). The materials for the tunnels at the other end of Gaza — the ones into Israel — were smuggled in from Egypt that same year. So were the new sophisticated weapons Hamas has been using. Now Israel is cleaning up the mess.

Morsi was not just a president, he was the leader of a movement-regime. The movement was the same Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a branch and al-Qaeda is an offshoot.

The Obama administration had encouraged Egyptians to vote Morsi into office; this made the difference in his thin margin of victory. The administration bears causal responsibility for the present conflict, alongside the Brotherhood itself. The administration promoted uncritically what it called “democracy” in Egypt. At every point along the line it biased its democracy-promotion in ways that served the Brotherhood’s rise to power. This is obvious to Egyptians; they talk bitterly about how America foisted the Brotherhood on them. It is only Americans who have not heard about it.

Is it unfair for Egyptians to blame all of America for things the administration did, especially since the administration in fact did these things in the name of distancing itself from what it and its supportive media called the “Islamophobia” of “America”? Maybe it is not as unfair as it seems; after all, the Obama administration did not do this all by itself. It built on the mistakes the Bush administration had made. President Bush had demanded that the Palestinians and Egyptians scrap the rules of secular democracy and let the Muslim Brotherhood run in their elections. But then, the Bush administration, too, was hell-bent after 9/11 on distancing itself from the “Islamophobia” and “prejudices” of “America.” It was blaming everything wrong in the Mideast on America’s supposedly having “propped up” the more moderate and benign dictatorships of the region, by which it meant the fact of having sometimes dealt with them normally and not gone all out to topple them. One could, then, exempt “America” from the blame, theoretically, by saying that U.S. policy throughout this period has been influenced less by America per se than by an elite milieu in Washington, and in the media and academia, that is making policies for the sake of distancing itself from America. That proposition has a painful grain of truth, but it is a difficult truth for foreign countries to grasp. They have to deal with the America they are given.

Fortunately, Bush, while lacking the strength to stay free of foolish influences intellectually, had the decency to stop short on his democracy-promotion policy when he saw where it was leading. But by then it had already brought Hamas to power in Gaza; it was too late to save the window of opportunity for making peace between the Palestinians and Israel that had been opened when Mahmoud Abbas was chosen to head the Palestinian National Authority in 2005.

The unchallenged bipartisan ideology in Washington, at least since 1991, has been that democracies never fight one another. It was deduced that Arab democracy was the road to peace with Israel; therefore if the Palestinians held legislative elections open to all major forces — even a terrorist religious party such as Hamas — they would become ready to make peace. The reality was the other way around: It was peace with Israel that would have been the road to enabling democracy to become a benign factor among Palestinians and others in the Arab world, instead of remaining a vehicle of anti-Western passions and totalitarian religious movements. The chance to make peace was sacrificed to the democracy-promotion ideology.

Obama in turn undid Bush’s self-correction. His theorists held that Bush’s real mistake was not his demanding that religious parties be allowed to participate in elections, but merely his failing to support Hamas after it won the Gaza elections in 2006. They added that he shouldn’t have backed off from further pressures on Hosni Mubarak when the Brotherhood won nearly every seat it had been allowed to contest in the 2005 elections in Egypt.

Obama “corrected” those “mistakes.” He gave his Cairo speech and invited leaders of the Brotherhood to sit in the front row. He enthused over the Arab Spring and at times, like a true revolutionary organizer, proclaimed the necessary next demands upon the old regime and the next strategic moves for the Revolution. He publicly demanded that Egypt legalize the Brotherhood as a political party — which meant scrapping Egypt’s secular rules in this matter. (And this in turn compelled the more extreme Salafists, who would have preferred to remain apolitical, to organize as a party, so that the Brotherhood would not get all the religious votes.) At the same time, the Western mass media, whose line was the same as Obama’s, supported and indeed demanded the outlawing of Mubarak’s party, an anti-democratic act of revolutionary vengeance that served to disorganize the moderate center of Egypt. Legalize the Brotherhood as a party; outlaw the “corrupt” centrists as a party: This was the actual substance of Obama’s version of the “democracy” policy. It made the Brotherhood by far the largest coherent political force in Egypt.

#page#The media and the Obama administration initially justified this by saying there was no chance the Brotherhood could win an election, and they engaged in name-calling — “ignorant,” “Islamophobic,” “simplistic Americans” — at those who saw things more accurately. When the Brotherhood won the parliamentary elections handily, neither the media nor the administration had the decency to admit to being wrong, and wrong with deadly consequences; they turned on a dime and said the Brotherhood’s victory was a good thing. And they continued excluding from the discussion those who had been right, calling them the same dirty names as before. In the final round of the presidential elections, the administration positively encouraged Egyptians to vote for the Brotherhood’s candidate, Morsi, letting it be known that it was planning to send aid to Egypt if he won, and to impose financial penalties if he lost.

Once Morsi did win, by a bare 51 percent to 48 percent, Obama pressured the Egyptian army to submit. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s newfound power gave Hamas unprecedented strategic depth to its rear, inspiring it to start a war with Israel in 2012; Obama turned to Morsi to mediate an end to the war, letting Hamas came out ahead, and he praised Morsi’s statesmanship for it. Morsi and the Brotherhood shifted the balance of power in the Sinai peninsula toward extremists, releasing terrorists from prison; Obama turned to Morsi to rein them in. It was a pattern of the administration’s in effect arranging to be taken hostage, actively making itself dependent on a hostile movement, and then rewarding that movement. Morsi seized on both occasions of administration dependence on him, using them to purge the army and security services of non-Brotherhood leaders. Obama gulped and rationalized this as a step forward on the road to civilian control and democracy.

Morsi kept consolidating Brotherhood power, but the popular mood turned against his misrule. Literally millions of Egyptians came out into the streets demanding his ouster — many times more than had ever come out for the “Arab Spring,” which the media had misleadingly characterized as “the people.” The army’s spirit recovered, and it toppled Morsi — over Obama’s objections. Egyptians saw this as a last chance for the country to shake loose of the tightening vise of Brotherhood rule.

The army has proceeded to try to restore normal life in Egypt. This has been much more painful than it would have been to continue normal life had Morsi never been in power, or — to be frank — had Mubarak remained. The army has faced a low-intensity war with terrorists in the Sinai. It has slowed the flows of matériel to Gaza, but faced political limitations on what it could do there. The rest has been left to Israel. That is where we are now.

The period of Brotherhood rise and rule was a terrible period in Egyptian history — and in U.S. foreign policy. The world will be paying the price for it for years to come; the Gaza war is only the beginning of the ripple effects.

We need to learn the full lessons from this. We need to understand what we did wrong — not just my brief outline of it above — and why our thinking was so far off base. What was it in the words that are honored among us — democracy, revolution, nonviolence, change — that led us to be patsies for revolutions against benign, friendly governments such as Mubarak’s in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s in Tunisia? Or to promote religious parties and totalitarian movement-democracies, and a shift in the balance of power to Islamists and terrorists? Or to promote democracy as an immediate goal everywhere, without checking whether the local political culture was compatible with it, or even checking first whether the popular majority in the country in question was not too hostile to the West and its interests? Was it that neither Bush nor Obama nor the rest of our elites had any other idea or organizing principle except democracy-promotion (the only difference being that Bush was publicly attacked for his mistakes by all the media, and, thanks to this partisan hatred of him, he was able to stop himself in mid-disaster)? Was it is an elite phobia about the supposedly “Islamophobic American people,” and an elite focus on dissociating itself from this Other America? Was there a fear of being called hypocrites if we promoted democracy when it made sense, and not when it didn’t make sense, i.e., when it hurt ourselves and the world? Did we forget that prudence has to be used when applying rules, and multiple concerns have to be balanced when making policies; and that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds?

We need to find the holes in our thinking and fill them in. Otherwise we will continue making the same basic mistakes over and over again. The consequences could grow considerably worse than they already are.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility. 

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