Today's first hearing of the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee was dominated by the question of how much the United States should fear the empowerment of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and what leverage should be used against the Egyptian military to get them to behave in accordance with U.S. interests.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) opened the hearing with a broad criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt, which she said is now tilting too far in support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and is failing to counteract the threat posed by the rise of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Instead of being proactive, we have been obsessed with maintaining short-term, personality-based stability -- stability that was never really all that stable, as the events of the recent week demonstrate," she said.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
Ros-Lehtinen repeated her argument that the United States should try to impose strict criteria on the process to ensure only "responsible actors" can participate in Egyptian governance, which she defined as those who renounce violent extremism and pledge to uphold Egypt's international commitments, including its peace treaty with Israel.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart, didn't have any nice things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood either.
"Like many I am skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to democracy. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be governed by religious law rather than man-made law, a problematic position for a democrat. It has a bloody history," he said. "Even in the best-case scenario where the Brotherhood proves itself fully committed to democracy, there is every reason to believe it will try to influence the Egyptian government in ways that undermine U.S. interests and that will make Egypt a regressive, less-tolerant place."
Prior to the start of the hearing, Berman formally announced the names of the new ranking Democrats on the various subcommittees, including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) on the Middle East subcommittee. Ackerman offered the most scathing criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Egypt crisis at the hearing.
"In Egypt I fear that we are snatching failure from the jaws of success," he said. "The Obama administration now appears to be wavering about whether America really backs the demands of the Egyptian people or just wants to return to stability, which is a facade."
Ackerman turned the hearing into a discussion of the Egyptian military's role and the trustworthiness of Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of Mubarak's national intelligence agency. Ackerman criticized what he sees as a gap between the administration's rhetoric and its policy, and called on the White House to suspend military aid to Egypt now.
"The people yearn to be free. We must plant ourselves firmly on their side," he said. "We need to suspend our aid to Egypt. We simply cannot afford to be seen in Egypt as being a bankroll to oppression."
For his part, Berman disagreed with Ackerman and said that the United States should continue to use aid as leverage against the military, in order to pressure Suleiman and others to act in ways that support U.S. interests and values.
The foreign-policy experts that appeared before the committee largely agreed that military aid should be continued for the time being, but not if the Egyptian military proves to be impeding rather than advancing the course of reform.
"The Army may not have made up its mind yet. Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional," said former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams.
"The United State doesn't have so many levers," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Why would we throw away this arrow before it's absolutely apparent that the Egyptian Army has made a choice to suppress and refuse change? That seems to be unwise."
The experts disagreed on how the United States should handle the Muslim Brotherhood. Abrams said that "conditions that forbid religious parties are actually quite useful." Satloff urged a middle-of-the-road approach.
"Don't exaggerate [the danger of the Brotherhood], and also don't be naive," he said.
Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, argued that there are plenty of other secular political organizations in Egypt for the United States to work with besides the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We have to stop presenting ourselves with the choice that Mubarak gave us. There are groups in the middle," he said.
But Ackerman was skeptical that those groups were ready to take on a leadership role after decades of suppression. "If you over-pesticide your garden, you only get the weeds that survive," he said.
The other ranking Democrats on the committee announced today were Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade; Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) on the subcommittee on oversight and investigations; Donald Payne (D-N.J.) on the subcommittee on Africa, global health, and human rights; Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific; Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia; and Elliott Engel (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Berman also announced a plan to introduce the "Hezbollah anti-terrorism act of 2011," which would limit U.S. foreign assistance to Lebanon until President Obama certifies that none of the funds will go to Hezbollah-controlled agencies and that the Lebanese government is dismantling Hezbollah's military infrastructure.