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Column: A feckless response to Egypt's avoidable massacre

By David Rohde

(Reuters) - Tepid rationalizations that the United States has "limited leverage" in Egypt or that the Arab Spring is "failing" do not change a basic fact: a U.S.-funded "ally" has carried out one of the largest massacres of protesters in a decade.

It is time for Obama to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. Ending assistance will not curb the behavior of Egypt's increasingly autocratic military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nor will it ease that country's political divide or reduce ant-Americanism. But it will say that the United States actually stands for basic international principles.

Wednesday's killings and events in the Middle East over the last few weeks point to an alarming trend for the Obama White House. Its drone and surveillance-centric approach to counterterrorism is failing. A grim reality is emerging for Americans. The George W. Bush invasion-centric approach to countering militancy failed. And so is the cautious, middle of the road Obama strategy.

From massacres in Cairo to prison breaks across the region, the United States is more hated and less secure. At the same time, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining fighters, propaganda victories and recruiting tools.

The message the White House sent to young Islamists in Egypt this week was clear. What jihadists have been telling you about American hypocrisy for years is true. Democratic norms apply to everyone but you. Participating in elections is pointless. Violence is the route to power. Wherever he is hiding in the mountains of Pakistan, Ayman al Zawahiri is likely pleased.

After golfing for five hours on Wednesday and having drinks with a campaign donor, Obama announced on Thursday morning that the United States was cancelling a military exercise with the Egyptian military and immediately went golfing again. There was no announcement that the administration would cut off the $1.3 billion in annual American aid to Egypt, most of it military.

"The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces," Obama said. "We deplore violence against civilians."

In a portion of his statement that bordered on lecturing, Obama said it was the responsibility of Egyptians to decide their future. He is correct. But that does not absolve the United States, the Egyptian military's largest Western backer, from flatly condemning a coup and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators.

The administration must stop trying to be the opposite of the Bush administration. Speaking boldly about core international principles is not the equivalent of invading Iraq. Consistency is vital.

In Egypt, a false equivalence should not be drawn between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Deposed president Mohammed Morsi was not inclusive and ran the government terribly, but he did not kill hundreds of demonstrators.

The White House deserves credit for dispatching Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns to Cairo to try to strike a compromise. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently traveled to Egypt as well. Working with Europe and Arab diplomats, American officials warned Egypt's military ruler against a crackdown. So did Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yet the military carried out the crackdown anyway. My Reuters colleague Paul Taylor reported Wednesday that the Muslim Brotherhood had accepted an international plan to defuse the crisis but the Egyptian military rejected it. As Joshua Hersh of The New Yorker wrote from Cairo Wednesday, this is a "catastrophe of choice" by Egypt's generals.

It is one thing to be unable to control the police state re-emerging in Egypt. It is another to provide $1.3 billion in aid.

The administration's response to the killing is an enormous mistake on the global stage. The real issue is not trying to placate Egypt's generals. It is the perception of the United States among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. If Islamist political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, abide by political norms they should be allowed to participate in politics. Violently repressing them will not work.

Obama's response to the massacre so far confirms the arguments jihadists have used as a recruiting tool for years. Hard-line militants have long said that a hypocritical Washington obsessively protects the lives of Americans, Europeans and Israelis but largely ignores the deaths of Arabs and Muslims.

Some administration officials may argue that cutting the $1.3 billion in aid would further destabilize Egypt's economy. But Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations are providing $12 billion in aid to the Egyptian government. Some may argue that continued aid helps Israel. But the re-emergence of a police state will destabilize Egypt, not stabilize it. Some officials may argue that the aid allows us to maintain influence with Egypt's army. But what influence do we have left?

Meanwhile, in other parts of the region, the administration's approach to counterterrorism is failing. Prison breaks freed hundreds of jihadists in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya. Yemen is increasingly unstable. The threat of a potential attack prompted the closing of 22 American embassies across the region.

Clearly, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that sending American troops to any of these countries will only make things worse. But the administration's detached approach, so clearly shown by Wednesday's response, is not working either. Americans exhaustion with the region is understandable. But we must engage with the region, support democratic principles and not pretend that we can walk away.

Drone attacks and global surveillance are not a substitute for consistent long-term support for governments and moderate groups that embrace basic international norms. As I've written before, a return to rule by generals and regents is a fantasy.

Consistent diplomatic engagement, economic investment and security force training will not quickly stabilize countries or end violence. But it is a vastly better strategic approach than the current one.

History is against Egypt's generals. It is also against continuing to give them $1.3 billion in American aid.

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April.)

(David Rohde)

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