Ex-State Department Spokesperson P.J. Crowley: The U.S. Should Describe Morsi Ouster as a Coup

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On Thursday, President Obama condemned the Egyptian military’s deadly crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and announced the cancellation of military exercises with Egypt next month. But Obama stopped short of cutting off the $1.55 billion a year of mostly military U.S. aid to Egypt and continued to avoid describing the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as a coup. We get response from P.J. Crowley, who served under Obama as the State Department’s spokesperson from 2009 to 2011. We also talk about the case of Bradley Manning. In 2011, Crowley resigned after he told a group of students, “What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our look at the U.S. response to Egypt now with our next guest, P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state. Crowley resigned in 2011 as State Department spokesperson following remarks he made about Bradley Manning’s treatment in custody. P.J. Crowley is now a fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. He’s going to join us right now, but first I want to play President Obama’s remarks on Egypt Thursday. He announced the cancellation of military exercises with Egypt next month but stopped short of cutting off the one-and-a-half billion dollars of mostly military U.S. aid to Egypt.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom or that might makes right. And today the United States extends its condolences to the families of those who were killed and those who were wounded.

Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people. But while we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.

As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month. Going forward, I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take, as necessary, with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s President Obama’s first statement on Egypt on his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. P.J. Crowley with us now, former State Department spokesperson. Your comment on your former boss’s remarks?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, the United States is in a very difficult situation. It does not have great influence with Egypt. These are decisions being made in Egypt, and these are mistakes that are being made in Egypt. You know, go back two years, when the Arab Spring started and the transition in Egypt started, I think there was an understanding that the march to democracy in Egypt would be a difficult one, would take a long time and would not be a straight line. And, obviously, I think it was a military coup. I think the United States should call it that. But, you know, right now the—

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think they’re not? Why do you think President Obama refuses to call it a coup? I mean, you have his former presidential foe, right, John McCain, being sent by President Obama, who says this is a coup, but he won’t say it’s a coup.

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I think the United States is trying to figure out how to exercise whatever influence and leverage it can. It does have a strong relationship with the Egyptian military, but obviously that has limits. As I understand it, we’ve been trying to give Egypt good advice, and they have generally ignored that advice, from the coup in the first place, you know, to avoiding the kind of horrific violence that we have seen, you know, this week. So I think the calculation—I understand the logic of it—whether you agree or not, is that maintaining this open line of communication, you know, because, obviously, you have to work to the endgame back. The objective here is to get back to civilian rule and to an inclusive democracy that is deeper than we saw during the Morsi government. That’s a difficult task, and obviously days like we’ve seen this week make that task even more challenging than it was, to begin with.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, P.J. Crowley, when you say that the influence of the United States is limited, I go back to the issue that I raised to Sharif Abdel Kouddous: The size of the U.S. aid to the Egyptian military is so huge that, clearly, our government saying, “We’re going to cut off this aid, unless you change the way you’re dealing with the transition to democracy,” would have a big impact, wouldn’t it, on Egyptian military?

P.J. CROWLEY: Actually, I think—I think it probably would have had a bigger impact on the Muslim Brotherhood than on the Egyptian military. You’ve got a lot of agendas that are working their way through the Middle East, and the United States, quite honestly, is not the only actor here. You know, you have a military situation. You also have an economic crisis in Egypt. And obviously, some of the Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar—have provided assistance to Egypt for different reasons—Qatar, to support the Muslim Brotherhood; Saudi Arabia, to support the military. So, yes, a billion dollars is a lot, and the relationship that we have with the Egyptian military is a deep one. That said, the Egyptian military is going to protect its own self-interest, and that—if that comes at the cost of a relationship with the United States. Obviously, what we’ve seen with the actions of the generals over the past several weeks, they’re willing to put that at risk in order to preserve their sway on Egypt, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: The Gulf states giving $12 billion to $15 billion actually dwarfs what the U.S. is giving. The significance of that?

P.J. CROWLEY: It is. You know, and it’s just like Syria, where there are multiple agendas going on. You know, we have a desire for an endgame in Syria. Iran has its own interests. Saudi Arabia has its own interests. So, you know, we are a profoundly influential country, but we’re not the only actor in this—in this unfolding tragedy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, P.J. Crowley, you famously resigned in March 2011 after you were asked by an MIT graduate student why the United States government was torturing Private Bradley Manning, and you responded by accusing the Pentagon of being “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid” in its treatment of Manning. You said your comments, quote, “were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discreet actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership.” Could you explain?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, what we do matters. What we say matters. And when our words and actions don’t match, the credibility of the United States is at stake. I certainly think, in the context of Egypt, our promotion of democracy in the region has been severely damaged by our hesitation to call a coup a coup. I certainly think, and I’m sure you would agree, that as you try to build a democracy in a country that has not experienced it before, you know, what is the better foundation upon which to begin democracy? Is it an election—even if it’s an election of a president who is governing narrowly, not governing expansively—or is it a military coup? I would argue that the better course of action would have been, you know, to not only try to work with Morsi to make his government more inclusive, but also to continue to work with the political opposition to prepare for a future election where, you know, Morsi will have to defend his record. And if he remained as unpopular as he evidently was, that would suggest a different result in the next election. But obviously that’s not the course that the Obama administration has pursued. Well, in fairness—

AMY GOODMAN: P.J. Crowley, though—

P.J. CROWLEY: In fairness, that’s not the course that the Egyptian military has pursued. And, obviously, the Obama administration has decided to work within what has happened within Egypt rather than calling it a coup.

AMY GOODMAN: But switching to the issue of Bradley Manning, also very important right now—you know, we’re, at this point, in the sentencing phase of the trial. The court will resume today at Fort Meade, Maryland. I wanted to go to President Obama defending the military’s treatment of Bradley Manning.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With respect to Private Manning, you know, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are. I can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this? It’s the reason you were forced to leave the State Department. Do you regret your comments, or do you feel that they were appropriate, given how Bradley Manning was treated, being stripped naked at night, etc.?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, Amy, to be clear, I resigned from the State Department; I wasn’t asked to leave. I did so because having a public disagreement with the president of the United States—I serve at the—I served at the pleasure of the president, and I thought that in light of our disagreement publicly, I could no longer effectively serve in my position as his foreign policy spokesman. That was my decision and no one else’s.

I certainly stood by what I said. I thought that the treatment of Bradley Manning in the brig at Quantico undercut what was, in my view, a very necessary prosecution. Bradley Manning has admitted guilt to a number of serious charges. He violated his oath of office. And I believe that he should serve a significant sentence for his actions. I did not support the prosecution’s pursuit of the charge of aiding the enemy. I thought that was judicial overreach. But I certainly understood that the treatment of Bradley Manning, you know, was affecting international opinion of the United States. The last thing the United States needed was another controversy involving detention issues, even one involving one of our own soldiers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to play part of an exchange about Bradley Manning that happened between Associated Press reporter Matt Lee and State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, when Lee asked her to comment on the verdict in Manninng’s case.

MATTHEW LEE: What is the State Department’s reaction to the verdict in the Manning trial?

JEN PSAKI: Well, Matt, we have seen the verdict, which I know just came out right before I stepped out here. I would—beyond that, I would refer you to the Department of Defense.

MATTHEW LEE: Well, for the—

JEN PSAKI: No further comment from here.

MATTHEW LEE: For the entire trial, this building had said that it wouldn’t comment because it was pending, it was a pending case. And now that it’s over, you say you’re still not going to comment?

JEN PSAKI: That’s correct. I would refer you to the Department of Defense.

MATTHEW LEE: Can I—OK, can I just ask why?

JEN PSAKI: Because the Department of Defense has been the point agency through this process.

MATTHEW LEE: Well, these were State Department cables, exactly. They were your property.

UNIDENTIFIED: State Department employees were [inaudible].

JEN PSAKI: We don’t—we just don’t have any further comment. I know the verdict just came out. I don’t have anything more for you at the time.

MATTHEW LEE: Well, does that mean—are you working on a comment?

JEN PSAKI: I don’t—

MATTHEW LEE: Are you gratified that this theft of your material was—

JEN PSAKI: I don’t expect so, Matt, but if we have anything more to say, I promise everybody in this room and then some will have it.

MATTHEW LEE: OK. I’m a little bit surprised that you don’t have any comment, considering the amount of energy and time this building expended on assisting the prosecution.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: P.J. Crowley, your comment on your former agency’s still not being able to present a comment on what—on the Bradley Manning case?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I don’t know what instructions Jen Psaki was given by the legal adviser at the State Department. So, I certainly would say, from my vantage point, having gone through the WikiLeaks event at the State Department, is, I can tell you that there was damage done to the national interest, and more importantly, there were real lives put at risk because of the release of these diplomatic cables. Since the entire archive is now in the public domain, you’ll recall that there were a number of cases in these cables where diplomats somewhere around the world had talked to activists, and they had said, “strictly protect the identity,” because, if revealed, their lives would be at risk. And I can just attest to you that there were people whose careers were ruined, who had been intimidated, jailed. Some who have been listed in those cables have been killed. I can’t tell you it’s because of the WikiLeaks revelations. But for those who say that Bradley Manning did no real damage to the national interest, I can tell you earnestly that that’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: P.J. Crowley, as we wrap up, your dad, William C. Crowley, was the vice president for public relations with the Boston Red Sox. And I was just wondering, as a person who you, yourself, State Department—former State Department spokesperson, deal with the press all the time—your thoughts on John Henry, the Red Sox owner, buying The Boston Globe? He has quite a mouthpiece right now.

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I also cut my teeth as an intern at The Boston Globe, you know, many years ago while going to college in Massachusetts. It’s very, very interesting. I do think that there’s a significant tradition of local ownership of newspapers and understanding their importance to the community. The Boston Globe is a regional paper. It serves all of New England. You know, so you have two contrasting aspects here. You have John Henry, now rooted in Boston, buying The Boston Globe, and you have the Graham family, rooted here in Washington, D.C., you know, ceding control of the paper to Jeff Bezos. But, obviously, I think journalism is important, and having the resources necessary to do the kind of community-based reporting and broader reporting is vitally important to American democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, P.J. Crowley, former State Department spokesperson, resigned in 2011 following remarks he made about the inappropriate treatment of Bradley Manning in custody. Now he’s a fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.

When we come back, we look at Yemen, is the story of an eight-year-old boy who was given a chip to put in his surrogate father’s coat. Later, that father was killed in a drone strike. Stay with us.

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