In June 1941, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill famously told his personal secretary John Colville “If Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” The next day he expressed unequivocal support for his arch-enemy Stalin and dispatched military assistance to beleaguered Moscow.
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This “principle of the lesser evil” that Churchill so pithily expressed has been the guiding principle of much of America’s post-World War II policy. In its name, the U.S. has supported a long line of disgusting dictators and terrible tyrants who were considered to be critical for vital American interests such as combatting Communism and terror or safeguarding oil supplies in the Middle East. Democracy and human rights, in most cases, took a back seat, often for many decades.
This is the general theme of the Israeli effort to persuade Washington not to cut U.S. military aid to the Cairo regime, despite its transgressions. America and Israel share an overriding interest in preserving the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and in preventing Sinai from turning into a launching pad for Al-Qaida attacks, Israel says. Former ambassador to Egypt Eli Shaked told the New York Times on Monday, “We don’t have good guys. It is a situation where you have to choose who is less harmful.”
President Obama and his administration realize, of course, that abandoning Generalissimo el-Sisi at this juncture could set off a regional chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences. They are hearing this not only from Israel, but also from Saudi Arabia, which has pledged to make good on any Egyptian overdraft that might be created by a U.S. decision to suspend military aid.
To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.
The American administration thus finds itself squirming within the very limited space between the rock of its liberal tendencies and the hard place of its strategic imperatives. It has come as close as it can without actually touching the military aid, while urging Egyptian generals to cease and desist from their “scorched earth” policy against the Brotherhood. One more mass killing like the carnage that occurred last week could very well lead to a suspension of the outstanding $585 million in FY2013 military assistance, the Egyptians have been told.
But the ideological left, which is closest to Obama, rejects the administration’s pragmatist contortions and its ongoing refusal to use the tripwire word “coup” in describing President Morsi removal from power. Author Peter Beinart described Egypt as Obama’s “greatest foreign policy failure” this week, while New Yorker editor David Remnick has roundly criticized the administration’s blatant obfuscation of the truth.
Impatience is also mounting in the political center and right. The Republican Party’s dynamic duo, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham - possibly miffed by the failure of their personal mission to Cairo to moderate the campaign against the Muslim leadership – are now leading the charge against al-Sisi and for a suspension of military aid. Many in the ideological Republican right thus find themselves torn between their abhorrence of foreign aid in principle and their steadfast support for most positions espoused by Israel and its supporters.
Only two weeks ago, both McCain and Graham staunchly opposed Senator Rand Paul’s attempt to get the Senate to cut aid to Egypt, citing Israel’s security concerns. But on Sunday’s Face the Nation on CBS Graham not only called for an immediate cut to military aid but also offered unusual criticism of Israel for joining Gulf countries in urging Sisi to "crush the Brotherhood."
Thus, the forthright statements made by a “senior Israeli official” to the New York Times on Monday on Israel’ s plans to “intensify its diplomatic campaign urging Europe and the United States to support the military-backed government in Egypt” could very well backfire on Jerusalem.
If another massacre occurs and Sisi is held responsible, the Egyptian general could suddenly be cast in public opinion as the greater rather than the lesser of evils, and Israel as the country that persuaded the U.S. to back the wrong devil.