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Diplomacy and Double Standards

CANBERRA – When does acceptable diplomatic caution and realism become indefensible abdication of moral standards? Not everyone on the foreign-policy frontline cares, but those who do often face deeply uncomfortable choices.

Negotiating a life-saving peace may mean giving amnesty to the murderously guilty. Living with tyranny might be less life-threatening than embracing anarchy. Calming a volatile situation may mean not publicly denouncing behavior that cries out for condemnation. Making the right call is more difficult in the real world than in a philosophy classroom.

But sometimes the line really is crossed, all relevant players know it, and the consequences are potentially profound. The United States’ failure so far to cut off its military aid to Egypt in response to the regime’s massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in the streets and in prisons, is as clear a recent case as one can find.

Former President Mohamed Morsi’s government was a catastrophic failure – ruthlessly ideological, economically illiterate, and constitutionally irresponsible. It deeply polarized a society yearning for a new inclusiveness. But, had the army held its nerve – and triggers – there is every reason to believe that Morsi would have been voted out in the next election. If the Muslim Brotherhood denied a ballot, or refused to accept defeat, tougher measures could then have been contemplated. As it is, the army’s coup was indefensible, and its slaughter of mostly unarmed protesters ranks in infamy with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and those of Libya’s former leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, and Syria’s Hafez and Bashar al-Assad.