Evan Vucci / AP
Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 | 11 p.m.
EDGARTOWN, Mass. — The Obama administration on Wednesday condemned the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters, but showed no signs of taking any tough steps, like suspending American aid, in response.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the violence in Cairo was “deplorable” and ran “counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy.” He said the United States strongly opposed the military’s imposition of a state of emergency, calling on all Egyptians to “take a step back.”
But Kerry announced no punitive measures, while President Barack Obama, vacationing here on Martha’s Vineyard, had no public reaction. As his chief diplomat was speaking of a “pivotal moment for Egypt,” the president was playing golf at a private club.
With few levers of influence over Egypt’s generals, the American response consisted of a flurry of phone calls by Kerry to European and Arab foreign ministers, including Egypt’s interim foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy. State Department officials did not disclose details of the conversation, but there was no indication that Fahmy offered assurances that the crackdown on supporters of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, had ended or would be limited in scope. Kerry said he implored Egyptian officials to avoid violence.
The harrowing images from Cairo put Obama in an awkward but familiar place: on vacation, confronting a wave of bloodshed in the Middle East. The last time he was on Martha’s Vineyard, in 2011, he stepped before cameras to speak after rebels seized the Libyan capital, Tripoli, sending Moammar Gadhafi into hiding.
On Wednesday morning, Obama was briefed on the situation by his national security adviser, Susan E. Rice. But he appeared determined not to allow events in Egypt to interrupt a day that, besides golf, included cocktails at the home of a major political donor, Brian Roberts. A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters, “We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens.”
Earnest did not signal any shift in administration policy, which has been to keep open lines of communication to Egypt’s generals. Like other administration officials, he would not call the military’s ouster of Morsi a coup, to avoid a designation that could prompt a cutoff of $1.3 billion a year in American military aid.
The United States has walked a fine line in dealing with the Egyptian military, urging the generals to avoid violence and release Morsi from detention, but stopping short of suspending military and other aid, in part because of fears that doing so could destabilize the region.
“We are continuing to review our posture and our assistance to the Egyptians,” Earnest said.
In the administration’s only punitive measure to date, the Pentagon has held up the delivery of four F-16 fighter planes to the Egyptian air force. An American official said Wednesday that the Pentagon was considering delaying or canceling American involvement in the Bright Star military exercise next month. Bright Star, the major biennial training exercise led by American and Egyptian forces, dates to the early 1980s.
Analysts said the ferocity of the latest crackdown would put the White House’s strategy to its sternest test yet.
“If it looks like the U.S. effectively colluded in a counterrevolution, then all the talk about democracy and Islam, about a new American relationship with the Islamic world, will be judged to have been the height of hypocrisy,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In his remarks, Kerry said, “The only sustainable path for either side is one toward a political solution,” adding, “I am convinced that that path is in fact still open,” even if the bloodshed of the last 24 hours had made it far more difficult.
Kerry, according to a State Department spokeswoman, talked on the phone with Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned his post as Egyptian vice president to protest the military’s action. ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was viewed as a critical moderate voice in the interim government.
The spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said ElBaradei’s resignation was a “concerning development,” noting that he and Kerry shared a desire “to get back on a productive path.” But she said Kerry did not ask ElBaradei to reconsider his decision.
Kerry also conferred with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s senior foreign policy official, and Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, and he was scheduled to speak with the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been sharply critical of the administration’s policy and who recently visited Cairo, suggested that Kerry might share some responsibility for the military crackdown.
“As we predicted and feared, chaos in Cairo,” McCain said on Twitter. “Sec Kerry praising the military takeover didn’t help.” During a recent visit to Pakistan, Kerry said the Egyptian military had been “restoring democracy” when it ousted Morsi.
Traveling in Amman, Jordan, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he had not yet spoken with his Egyptian counterparts. Other Pentagon officials said the Egyptian authorities had given them no official notification that their efforts to clear the pro-Morsi demonstrators were under way.
Asked by reporters what he planned to say to Egyptian military leaders, Dempsey said, “It’s really the same message: The path forward for Egypt that will allow us to maintain our close military relationship and allow them to achieve their goals is the commitment to a road map, keeping violence levels as low as possible.”
“That’s a challenge, of course,” he added.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been a key interlocutor with Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and he has spoken with him 15 times since Morsi was ousted on July 3. Hagel is on vacation but is talking to aides and plans to be in touch with el-Sissi soon, an official said.