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Morsy takes on the world

As a number of FP commentators have pointed out, history isn't likely to be made at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit currently underway in Tehran. But even if the conference is short on Earth-shaking pronouncements, it has produced one of the first examples of how Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy will conduct himself on the world stage.

Morsy broke from decades of Egyptian foreign policy by attending the summit in the first place, becoming Egypt's first head of state to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. His decision provoked no shortage of condemnation in the United States -- Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, said Morsy "should be ashamed of himself" for stretching out a hand to the regime that crushed the 2009 Green Movement.

But Morsy's attendance at the Tehran summit seems to be the limit of his outreach to the Iranians. His speech at the summit offered Egypt's full-throated support for Syria's opposition, declaring "[o]ur solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy." The Syrian delegation, unsurprisingly, staged a walkout.

Tehran, the most important international backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, couldn't have been happy with Morsy's sentiment. So far, all Iran's leaders have received from him is some symbolic signs of a possible rapprochement -- while Egypt's new president has at the same time explicitly aligned himself against their primary Arab ally.

Morsy seems to want to have it both ways: At times, he has tried to regain some of Egypt's lost diplomatic influence by positioning himself as a mediator in the Middle East's disputes. Most prominently, he championed a regional initiative to resolve the Syria crisis that included Iran in the discussions. Such a proposal didn't set well with Egypt's traditional allies: Eliminating Iranian influence in Damascus is a major factor in Saudi Arabia and Qatar's support for the Syrian rebels. Giving Tehran a seat at the table misses the point entirely.

But you can't play peacemaker if you're also going to take sides. Morsy clearly feels the need to support a popular, predominantly Sunni revolution -- particularly one where the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood plays a prominent role. However, the nature of that support remains to be seen -- and it's hard to see how his "regional initiative" gets off the ground after antagonizing the Iranians on their home turf.

Even Morsy's religious rhetoric at the NAM summit was, at times, muddled. The Egyptian president went out of his way to praise "the holy family of the Prophet," whom Shiites believe were the natural successors to Mohammed. But he also name-dropped the four caliphs who ruled the Islamic world after the Prophet's death: Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali. The fourth caliph, Ali, is venerated by Shiites -- but the first three are viewed as usurpers who persecuted the true followers of Mohammed's teachings.

What, then, is Morsy trying to say -- not only about his faith, but Egypt's place in the world? It may still be years before we find out.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Image

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Highlights from Condi's convention speech

Condoleezza Rice received a standing ovation when she took the stage at the Republican convention in Tampa on Wednesday night, and the crowd remained every bit as enthusiastic throughout the address -- especially when Rice marveled at how an African-American girl from the segregated South could aspire to the presidency and become secretary of state. 

The speech by Rice -- and another earlier in the evening by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) -- marked the first extended discussion of foreign policy during the convention. Here are some of the takeaways from Condi's big speech:

  • Leading from behind: We've seen a lot of talk over the last couple days about American exceptionalism and a second American century, but tonight's programming introduced a fresh term into the anti-decline lexicon at the convention. The phrase "leading from behind" was first attributed to an anonymous Obama advisor in a 2011 New Yorker article, but it has since morphed into a GOP talking point, making its way into this year's Republican platform. In his speech (and FP column) McCain declared that America is "exceptional" because it has always "led from the front." Rice too declared that "you cannot lead from behind." Both speakers warned that if the United States refuses to lead assertively, a chaotic and dangerous world -- perhaps one with more sinister international actors at the helm -- awaits.
  • 'Where does America stand?' In arguably her most cutting criticism of the Obama administration, Rice argued that the "question of the hour," as the Middle East convulses, is "where does American stand?" Since the end of World War II, she continued, the United States has "had an answer to that question: we stand for free peoples and free markets." 
  • Freedom agenda: "Idealism in foreign policy," the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier wrote a few years ago, "is so 2003." By that he meant that Democrats, in response to the Iraq War and George W. Bush's "Freedom Agenda," had decided to sideline human rights and democracy promotion in their foreign policy. Tonight, both McCain and Rice (the latter more subtly) chastised the Obama administration for not championing freedom and democratic values. McCain, for example, criticized the president for not standing with Iranian protesters in 2009. Rice, for her part, observed that while it's not always easy to "speak for those who would otherwise not have a voice," the United States "will sustain a balance of power that favors freedom." 
  • Trade: Rice warned that the United States was "abandoning the field of free and fair trade" at its peril. "The United States has ratified only three free-trade agreements in the last few years," she noted, "and those were negotiated in the Bush administration. China has signed 15 free-trade agreements and is in the progress of negotiating as many as 18 more." As my colleague Josh Rogin points out, China may actually have fewer free-trade deals than Rice suggests. But the former secretary of state isn't the only one making this point. Jon Huntsman, a former Republican presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to China, remarked last October that when it came to striking free-trade deals, "China is in the game" and "[w]e are not."  
  • Immigration: At a time when the Republican Party has been stressing its tough, enforcement-first stance on immigration, Rice suggested a middle ground. "We must continue to welcome the world's most ambitious people to be a part of us," she said. "In that way we stay young and optimistic and determined. We need immigration laws that protect our borders, meet our economic needs, and yet show that we are a compassionate nation of immigrants."
  • Partisanship: As convention speeches go, Rice's wasn't particularly ideological. She never mentioned Barack Obama or Democrats, and she referenced Republicans only once -- when she greeted the crowd.  

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