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Semantic Gymnastics: US and Egypt

Despite being stated clearly in the country's law, Egypt's military crackdown on protests changes little for US policy.
Last modified: 14 Aug 2013 23:53
The Obama Administration is trying publicly to maintain an open door to the Egyptian military [Reuters]

What does the military crackdown on protests in Egypt mean for US policy?  It’s the question I’ve been asked often on and off camera today.  The answer, at least publicly and for now is – it means nothing.  Nothing has changed if you look at what the Obama administration said today compared with yesterday, and all the days since the military removed the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.  

The Deputy Press Secretary for the White House did condemn the violence.  It didn’t come from the president, he is on holiday as the statement was being read, Mr Obama was beginning a game of golf.  The Secretary of State John Kerry came out on camera and repeated what he has been saying, violence is not the answer, all sides need to come together for a peaceful solution, we’ve urged the military to show restraint and the people on the street to protest peacefully.  That is an important point that shouldn’t be overlooked.  It implies that all sides are to blame and shows that the Obama Administration is trying publicly to maintain an open door to the Egyptian military. 

The US has given $1.3bn to Egypt’s military every year to secure its peace with Israel.  US officials fear what instability at the Suez Canal could do to gas prices, or I should say what the resulting speculation would cost American consumers.  They see Egypt as the lynch pin to a stable Middle East.  I point this out because US officials are always very careful to explain that what they do in Egypt will be determined by what is in the best interest of US National Security.  That is also an important point and may help explain why the Obama administration is demonstrating remarkable semantic gymnastics on this issue.  Not since the Bush administration talked about “general time horizons for meeting aspirational goals”– has an administration tried so hard not to use a particular word.  In that case it was timetable – and in this case the word “coup” has become its own four letter word.

The reason is clear just like US law appears to be – it says if a democratically elected leader is removed by military force or decree, it is a coup and US aid has to be cut off.  The administration has tried various ways to get around this.  They say that Mr Morsi didn’t rule democratically.  The Secretary of State tried say the Egyptian military was restoring democracy, but quickly backtracked.  Now the official line from the administration is they are reviewing it and they don’t have to make that determination – their lawyers say so.  They may be right, nothing in this law says a determination has to be made, its kind of like what the definition of is – is:

From our crack researcher:

PUBLIC LAW 112–74—DEC. 23, 2011

CONSOLIDATED APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2012

SEC. 7008.

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to titles III through VI of this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role:

You might be asking yourself why would Congress pass this law.  I imagine it helps them when they say, and they often do, that the US stands for democracy, as a beacon of light for people seeking freedom, justice and democracy, what they never add is – “if it serves our interest”.  That caveat may matter in the future, beyond what happens in Egypt.  After President George Bush declared many things justified in order to go after terrorists, it became much harder for the US government to criticise other countries when they said they were doing the same.  Critics said the US lost its moral authority and credibility.  I can’t help but wonder what will happen if a military deposes a government the US does like and wants to keep around.  Will they be able to call it a coup without being laughed at and ignored?  The Obama administration might have to answer that question one day, but not now, reporters are still trying to get an answer to what a coup is exactly.