Pickering: U.S. Has To Carefully Parse Its Response In Egypt

Robert Siegel talks with former Ambassador Thomas Pickering about how the U.S. might approach the crisis in Egypt.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Has Washington's response to the crackdown in Egypt been too weak? President Obama has canceled joint military exercises. He has stopped short of cutting off military aid. In fact, he and his administration have been at pains to avoid calling the military's ouster and detention of President Mohamed Morsi a coup.

What should the U.S. do? I'm going to put that question now to Thomas Pickering, who was undersecretary of state for political affairs and served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, Nigeria, Israel, El Salvador, Jordan, not to mention the United Nations. He's now a distinguished fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution. Welcome to the program once again.

THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

SIEGEL: Should President Obama have taken some tougher step against Egypt?

PICKERING: It's a good question and certainly a torturing one. Egypt is, in many ways, a hugely domestic problem for Egyptians. And I think that beginning in the Arab Spring and perhaps even earlier, U.S. influence in the region has declined for multiple reasons. As a result, you shouldn't take tougher stance unless you think you can get somewhere.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, ask Egyptians how influential the U.S. is in all of this and the anti-Morsi camp will say that the U.S. lent credibility to Morsi's presidency. The pro-Morsi camp will say that the U.S. has made a coup possible. Egyptians seem to believe in the huge power of the U.S.

PICKERING: All problems in Egypt, from the point of view of Egyptians who are suffering, are easy to blame on foreigners and therefore to exaggerate their influence. The truth is that we do have influence, but it is limited. It has to be carefully parsed, and I think the president is striking the right balance. Canceling the Bright Star military exercises makes sense.

It would not make sense to deliver heavy military equipment like aircraft and tanks at the present time. But it is important to keep a relationship with the military, to keep them out of what I would call the Nasserist tendency to want to take over entirely the government, and to maintain a basis of some security where they are now exaggerating, I think, the problem. And the use of force has become a very significant danger.

SIEGEL: Here's a dilemma. The Egyptian army has done two things in the past several weeks. They have ousted the country's only elected president in response to massive public demonstrations. They've also resumed counterinsurgency activity in the northern Sinai and tried to restore some stability to the area of Egypt near Israel. Do they have leverage with us? That is, do we have to humor the Egyptian army because they're doing something that's very important to us?

PICKERING: Well, the latter issue is, of course, important, the recovery of Egyptian influence over Sinai. The dismissal of the president was a very serious step. The president himself was resistant to flexibility and to inclusion of others in his governance. The military took it on themselves to do that. I think that's precipitated the current stage of the crisis.

On the other hand, the military has to look ahead, as does the Muslim Brotherhood, at the future. And the current problem is a combination of obviously significant loss of life, which needs to be stopped, and at the same time moving toward reconciliation, which seems as far away as perhaps the moon and the stars right now. Otherwise, we well may be stuck with a horrendous Egyptian civil war.

SIEGEL: One reading of the situation in Egypt today, with a reconciliation seeming so remote given the violence in so many Egyptian cities, is that whatever the ultimate outcome, for several years there will be a fairly authoritarian regime in Egypt, and it will have to control and bar from politics an influential minority of the country. It's something quite reminiscent from what there was under President Mubarak.

PICKERING: Yes, it...

SIEGEL: How important should it be for us to say, no, that's not democratic enough, we want to see real elections, and we want to see a real constitution?

PICKERING: Well, it's important for us to say all the things that you talked about. And it's important for us to have an understanding and realization that they might not be achievable right away. There is no important figure in Egypt yet that has stepped forward for reconciliation.

If there is an election with no reconciliation possible, then an election is only likely to result in the perpetuation of the decline and disintegration of Egyptian politics and Egyptian life. Bringing together outside players - the Arabs with their money, the Europeans with their trade and investment, and the United States with historic position - has the one chance, perhaps, of beginning to influence in directions of sanity a situation which is really unwinding literally before our eyes.

SIEGEL: Thomas Pickering, thank you very much for talking to us.

PICKERING: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Pickering is now a distinguished fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution.

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