Yesterday, President Trump held a very cordial meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. As with everything Trump does, from tweeting to putting ketchup on his steak, this sparked outrage from Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself.)
It’s the first White House visit for el-Sisi since he took power; Obama having shunned him because he came to office in a military coup. As the linked story shows, there were good reasons for Obama to remain aloof: scores of Egyptians were killed and many more had their rights violated in the military government’s crackdown on protesters. On the other hand, Obama had backed the removal of Hosni Mubarak, a corrupt and ironfisted leader, but at least one who was relatively pro-American and kept the peace. Obama also supported his successor, Mohamed Morsi (wow, Obama meddled in other nations’ elections a LOT!) Morsi tried to seize unlimited power and ushered in a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government that started trying to rewrite Egypt’s Constitution to force extreme Islamism and Sharia law onto a largely secular public. That’s when Egypt’s military decided it had no alternative but to step in.
Trump sees el-Sisi as someone who, despite his glaring flaws, is willing to work with us against our common enemy of ISIS and other Islamic radicals, which might be the best deal we can get. That pragmatic view of foreign policy used to be the norm until idealistic liberals like Obama, with their “smart diplomacy,” came to power. They helped topple strongmen like Mubarek and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, creating power vacuums that were immediately filled by people who were actually worse, sending millions of refugees fleeing around the world. That’s the problem with trying to apply a simple “good/bad” liberal morality filter to the Middle East, where animosities date back millennia, political alliances are complicated, and all actions have unintended consequences.
Trump’s overtures to el-Sisi upset human rights activists, but he must think that restoring stability, the rule of law and American influence to Egypt is more likely to help human rights in the long run than standing righteously on principle and refusing to engage as the Middle East deteriorates into a desert of violent radicalism. There’s a term for the latter policy: “Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Maybe he figures the Middle East is never going to be perfect. “Good” is probably way too high a mark to shoot for, as well. If the best we can achieve for now is “stable,” at least it’s better than “violent, chaotic hellhole.”