Week In Politics: Egypt, Republican National Committee

Robert Siegel talks to political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss Egypt and a meeting of the GOP.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now our weekly political conversation with our Friday regulars, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to both of you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be back.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: First, the crackdown in Egypt and the questions it poses for Washington. President Obama took very measured action in response to the hundreds of deaths there when he spoke about Egypt yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people. But while we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.

SIEGEL: The president called off this year's joint military exercises, but he acknowledged that President Morsi's government was not, in his words, inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians and he stopped short of cutting off military aid. E.J., was that too timid a response to blood in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities?

DIONNE: Well, I think the administration is stuck. The U.S. is looking for middle ground that is disappearing, if it ever existed. I mean, when we first discussed the coup in Egypt shortly after it happened, I think it's fair to say that I was more worried than David was that this was not simply a response to abuses by the Muslim Brotherhood - and there were plenty of those - but actually a military power grab.

And I'm afraid it looks exactly like that now. The killings in Cairo are moral horror, but also, I think, a political mistake that will heighten polarization quickly to something like a civil war. The difficulty is the Obama administration's policy is basically democratic realism. You know, the first priority of American foreign policy is to protect the country and its interests.

But we also recognize that the spread of democracy and freedom is both a good and it's something, in the long run, helpful to the United States. And in here, where we value the alliance with Egypt, it's a lynchpin of our policy in the Middle East, but we're stuck with a government here that we disapprove of. And I think that explains - it's not paralysis, but the caution of the Obama administration.

SIEGEL: David, what do you think about this?

BROOKS: Well, I see a lot of realism in the Obama foreign policy. I don't see a lot of democracy. Our reaction to Syria proved or at least demonstrated to the region that killing works. And so, they're gonna kill if they think it can work. And it's worked, apparently, for the Assad government in Syria. The second thing, on the democracy route, I don't see us pushing democracy as much.

You know, you push at different levels, depending on what the society's at. You write constitutions, you help democratic forces. Some societies, you just try to push civil society. I don't see an aggressive push on that, either. And as for what's happening in Egypt right now, I guess I'm a little less confident than E.J. is that I know what the military is thinking.

Look, what they're doing is monstrous. There's no question about that. But are they trying to just crush the Muslim Brotherhood? That's bound to fail and create terrorism. I hope they're not trying to do that. And maybe they're stupid enough to try. Are they just trying to prevent an insurgency under the guise that the Brotherhood was in the form of creating an insurgent army?

Or third, and I think this is the most likely, are they trying to establish some red lines? Are they trying to reset the political map, do these horrible killings and then they'll go back to what they probably wanted all along, which is what the Egypt of old, which is sort of a military cleptocracy(ph). I don't think it's foolish to wait around to figure out what they're trying to do.

SIEGEL: It does seem that many secular Egyptian liberals seem surprisingly comfortable with the role of the military, both ousting the elected president and now taking charge.

DIONNE: Well, and this is not unusual. I mean, in Turkey, as well, the military was the backbone of secularism. And you're seeing a kind of repetition of that in Egypt and indeed the current government in Turkey, which is a mildly Islamist government, emphasis on mildly so far, has taken a very hard line against what's happening in Egypt.

It is somewhat disappointing that liberals or democrats have so far seemed to ally a fair amount with the military, although Mohamed ElBaradei's decision to leave the government suggests there is at least some space in Egypt that's trying to find - create some distance from the military.

SIEGEL: This is assuming in Egypt and not going back to Vienna some time soon. David, just before we move on to one domestic item, do you think there should be a dimension of advocating democracy that's missing from Obama policy right now?

BROOKS: Yeah, I think we should be pushing it a lot harder. First, let me say, on Egypt, though, my colleague Kareem Fahim did a great piece on a working-class neighborhood in Cairo where they were all for it. So we have to figure out what kind of society Egypt is. Clearly there are parts of society where the liberalizing impulse has gone deep and it's permanent. People do want democracy.

There seem to be other parts where they don't understand, or they don't really accept the idea, that those who disagree with you have a shot and should be participants in the system. They don't have that concept, or at least they agree - they decided not to have that concept of legitimacy.

And so I think that with people who are sophisticated or at least agree with us on democracy, we should be giving them all the legal help and the military and funding help we can. For people who don't, we have to champion the people who might be thrown in jail for advocating those ideas. I just think we need to push the ideas a lot harder. We're not going to actually affect the politics in any direct way.

SIEGEL: OK, time for one domestic event, which we'll turn into a short answer question, I guess. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told the Republican National Committee yesterday Republicans are not a debating society, we're a political operation that needs to win. Did Republicans need reminding of this? David, first you, very briefly.

BROOKS: He took a shot at college professors, so I'm deeply offended by him.

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: (Unintelligible).

BROOKS: They have to figure out what they believe in before they can win. There's no shortcuts there.

DIONNE: You can't have a winning strategy unless you debate it first, and Chris Christie is already engaged in a big debate with Ron Paul over national security. Clinton and George W. Bush both had figured out where they stood, started a big debate, and that's how they got to be president.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.