McCain contradicts Obama and Kerry in Egypt: Yes, Morsi's ouster was a "coup"

Newsworthy, not because disagreements between Maverick and The One are increasingly rare (which they are) and not because the “coup” language is new to McCain (it isn’t) but because he and Graham are there in Egypt at Obama’s behest. The whole point of this trip is to get the military to hold new elections soon so that the newly ousted Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t decide to abandon politics for jihad (yet). In order to make that happen, the White House needs to retain what little leverage it has over Sissi and the army. That’s why Obama’s been careful not to call Morsi’s downfall a “coup”: Not only would that alienate the military and the millions of Egyptian anti-Islamists who view last month’s upheaval as a necessary revolutionary step towards real democracy, it would force the U.S. by statute to cut off military aid.

Precisely for that reason, the lengths to which State has gone to avoid using the C-word are almost comical. Initially they said they simply wouldn’t take a position on whether it was a coup; when they were criticized for that, they doubled down and said there’s nothing in any federal law that requires them to take a position, so nyah nyah. Actual quote: “[I]t is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Then John Kerry, in an interview given in Pakistan, went full anti-coup:

“The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgement – so far. To run the country, there’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy.”

The Obama administration has refrained from describing Mr Morsi’s removal as a “coup”. Were it to do so, the US government would be obligated to cut off its estimated $1.5 bn in annual aid to Egypt, the BBC notes.

They’ve also been sporadically shooting people in the street, which is why Kerry has since offered some perfunctory criticism. The point, though, is clear — the White House really, really, really doesn’t want the political headache of calling Morsi’s ouster a coup.

So here’s John McCain, speaking today in Egypt as a semi-official White House ambassador, calling it a coup:

“We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsy government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets … . We’ve also said that the circumstances of (Morsy’s) removal was a coup,” McCain told reporters in Cairo Tuesday as he and Sen. Lindsey Graham met with officials there to press for a quick return to civilian life…

“The Egyptian military must move more aggressively toward turning over control to the civilian population, civilian organizations,” Graham, of South Carolina, said when asked about the purpose of the trip on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

“The military can’t keep running the country. We need democratic elections. The (Muslim) Brotherhood needs to get off the streets and back into the political arena and fight your differences there, and we need to put Egypt back to work. If this continues, it’s going to be a failed state. That’s why we’re going.”

If you’re trying to get the military to play ball on holding new elections, why would you delegitimize their big power play against Morsi? And while we’re in head-scratching mode over McCain’s Egypt pronouncements, how did he go from calling for aid to Egypt to be suspended a few weeks ago to voting against Rand Paul’s amendment last week calling for aid to Egypt to be cut off? McCain said on the Senate floor before that vote that canceling aid to the Egyptian military will only end up hurting Israel — which is arguably true, insofar as the aid acts as a restraint on the army from starting another war. How come it took him three weeks to figure that out, though? Better yet, why would O tap him, of all people, to be an envoy to Egypt’s military when Maverick had said publicly within the last month that the military should be cut off financially? That’s an odd pick if you’re looking to ingratiate yourself with them.

Anyway. The White House’s strategy in Middle East conflicts usually boils down to playing two bad sides off each other until there’s a semi-stable equilibrium between the two. That’s the plan in Syria — build up the rebels until Assad is forced to negotiate a peace settlement — and that’s the plan now in Egypt. That’s why you’re seeing top U.S. diplomats visiting jailed Muslim Brotherhood leaders in prison and why McCain and Graham are calling for MB prisoners to be released. We’re trying to ingratiate ourselves with both sides in hopes of bringing everyone back to the table and keeping them inside the political system. I wonder how far State’s prepared to go to make friends inside the Brotherhood in the name of preventing them from choosing violent “direct action” instead.