If we can believe the observations of commentators over more than two centuries, Americans have always wanted to be liked. We want people to like us, not to fear or feel coerced by us. That works well for a democracy where politicians want people to vote for them.
But liking each other is almost irrelevant to negotiations. Lawyers constantly negotiate with people they don’t like. What’s crucial is that we trust each other’s honesty and ethics. The principle difference is that liking the people you’re negotiating with makes it harder to see their motive to do you harm.
The Egyptian generals don’t have to like us. And at least in the short term, they don’t much need us. They will do what they think their own interests require and won’t much be bothered by whether they have warm feelings for America. So if I were in the White House, aside from having a stroke from the stress, I wouldn’t give a bleep for whether the generals like us.
The Egyptian population is different. Large populations don’t easily turn on a dime. So giving the generals the means to suppress their own population is likely to have long-term negative consequences for us.
But it does matter whether the generals believe us. We drew a line. We should stick to it. We said there would be consequences; we should make sure those consequences take place. So I’d cut the generals off – talk is fine, meetings are fine, but no goodies. None. Our conditions must include restoring democratic rule.
The generals won’t, of course, restore any semblance of democracy. By cutting out their opponents, especially the Brotherhood, they are squelching democracy. By jailing and killing them, they are acting as tyrants, not democrats. Democracy can’t be limited to those we like or think are clean without destroying democracy everywhere. And cutting out the Brotherhood won’t give anyone an incentive to play by democratic rather than violent rules.
We may not be able to control the generals but we don’t need to lie in their muck. Our position needs to be clear. We don’t need to make enemies of the Brotherhood. And we do stand for democracy, so we should stand up and stand by democracy, including their right to office.
Actually, the Brotherhood did many things I, and many others, didn’t like, but democracy is a learned behavior. Even the U.S. during the Administration of John Adams, a great patriot and second president, passed the Alien and Sedition Laws, legislation that was deeply offensive to free speech. Jefferson and his supporters defeated Adams and his party but didn’t ban them from politics. Eliminating the Brotherhood from Egyptian politics is an enormous over-reaction and a huge mistake. It is a mistake that as an American and in the interests of our country I want no part of. Whatever the generals do, we should stand for democracy.
I realize a firm hand with Egypt could have implications for Israel. But I’m tired of cleaning up the dirty laundry of their extremists. So letting them see that we aren’t suckers would be a good step toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 20, 2013.