Analysis / Washington reacts to Egypt with ambivalence

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WASHINGTON -- In polo shirt, shorts and sandals, President Barack Obama headed to the golf course Friday morning with a couple of old friends, then flew to Camp David for a long weekend. Secretary of State John Kerry was relaxing at his vacation home in Nantucket.

Aides said both men had been updated as increasingly violent clashes left dozens dead in Egypt, but from outward appearances, they gave little sense that the Obama administration viewed the crisis in Cairo with great alarm. While U.S. leaders expressed official concern, the unspoken truth is that many of them are at least conflicted and in some cases not all that unhappy about the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.

The relative calm in Washington also reflects a longer-term shift in U.S. relations in the Middle East. While Egypt was once seen as the singular strategic player in the region, today other countries play a larger role. The overriding U.S. interest in Egypt is preserving its three-decade peace with Israel, which officials believe the military is committed to doing.

No major U.S. political figure has overtly endorsed the military seizure of power, but Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood had few friends in Washington when he was elected a year ago, and even fewer by the time he fell from power this week. Uncomfortable from the start with the Islamists' rise, even if by a vote broadly deemed democratic, the White House and Congress increasingly viewed Mr. Morsi as autocratic and even incompetent.

"If you said to people you can cast a secret ballot on whether to turn back the clock and have Morsi in power again, I don't think very many people in Washington would turn back that clock," said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under former President George W. Bush. "They're just nervous about the implications going forward."

Because the Muslim Brotherhood is hostile to the United States, Mr. Abrams said, some Republicans in particular "think this is just plain wonderful." But he and other Republicans, as well as a number of Democrats, have more mixed feelings.

"There's some relief about Morsi being gone from the scene, having been a problem," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., a member of the Middle East subcommittee. "On the other hand, there are a lot of us who are never going to be comfortable with military interventions to overthrow a democratically elected government, even one we have issues with."

The Obama administration has reflected that ambivalence. At one point, Mr. Obama cultivated a relationship with Mr. Morsi and for a while in November thought he could be an effective partner when he helped defuse a crisis in Gaza. But within days, Mr. Morsi issued a decree claiming vast new powers, quickly puncturing the optimism in the White House and elsewhere in Washington, even though he later pulled back.

"Washington gave him a pretty good shot at proving the Brotherhood was going to govern democratically, reach out to the opposition and hold parliamentary elections soon after," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt. "Morsi failed on all counts. He proved to be not adept at doing any of these things."

Privately, Mr. Obama was frustrated that Mr. Morsi had never reached out to the opposition and thought he should be more inclusive, aides said. When the end came at the hands of Egypt's powerful military this week, Mr. Obama issued a written statement saying he was "deeply concerned" and urging the generals to restore a democratic government quickly. But he has made no comments about the matter beyond that.

The president met Thursday in the Situation Room with his national security team, and the White House released a photograph showing the session. But Mr. Obama's decision to go golfing Friday angered some Egyptians, and the only public comment from the administration as the crackdown in Cairo turned violent came from a State Department spokeswoman urging calm.

Whatever role the administration is playing behind the scenes, its public reticence suggested its discomfort with choosing sides. In effect, it has accepted Mr. Morsi's ouster and is not seeking to restore him, reasoning that, in fact, it could turn out for the best if the military quickly brings about new elections. The main priority is minimizing violence and repression of dissent.

The U.S. acceptance of the overthrow was reflected Friday in a statement issued by California Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman, and New York's Eliot L. Engel, the ranking Democrat, on the House Foreign Affairs Committee: "Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of these principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat."

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