Living With the Muslim Brotherhood

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 5:04 PM EDT

David Frum says you don't need to toss around slanders about how the president "sympathizes" with the killers of Americans in order to criticize Barack Obama's approach to Islamism in the Middle East. Instead, there's a perfectly legitimate critique to be made:

Obama's Foolish Embrace of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

The Obama administration has staked its foreign policy on the assumption that the best way to deal with radical Islam is by engaging with radical Islam, thus splitting the men of violence from the men willing to try politics.

By this theory, the problem with radical Islam was its method (terrorism), not its goals (establishing Muslim Brotherhood style governments).

Some in the Obama orbit hoped that the entry into government would modulate and moderate Islamist goals. Others believed that even if the Islamists did not moderate, it was still preferable to live with them than to do what was necessary to resist them.

My friend Dean Godson of the British think tank Policy Exchange has a fascinating lecture — it would make a brilliant book — about how this approach derives from the British experience in Northern Ireland. Under Tony Blair, the British government had followed a double Irish policy: a more effective approach to kill or capture IRA terrorists — combined with vigorous negotiations that offered IRA leaders willing to abjure violence the very role in government they had been fighting to seize.

If you notice a similarity to the Obama policy in Afghanistan, it's not a coincidence.

Unfortunately, that's all Frum has to say. So here's my question: if you think this is the wrong approach, then just what do you think Obama should have done instead in Egypt? What leverage did he have to keep Hosni Mubarak in power? Or, if you agree that Mubarak was a lost cause and nothing could have stopped the tide of democracy, what leverage did he have to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power?

Nobody thinks that military force was an option. Nobody (I hope) believes we still live in an era when the CIA could quietly engineer a friendly election result. There's always money, of course: we could have threatened to cut off aid to Egypt if the Brotherhood took power. At a guess, though, that would have helped the Brotherhood, not hurt them — and would have had about the same effect as hanging out a huge neon sign announcing that America believes in democracy only when we approve of the election results. That probably wouldn't help our cause any in the Middle East.

Conservatives too often assume that American power can accomplish anything we set our minds to. But it's not so. Sometimes there just aren't any good options, and the best path forward is to ride out the storm and refrain from doing anything foolish. It's not very satisfying at a gut level, but nine times out of ten it's the best you can do.

Frum may disagree, but if he does I'd sure like to hear his side of the argument. What exactly is the more tough-minded policy that he thinks would have produced a better result?

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