Secretary of State Clinton has admitted that the US not only has been engaged in "limited" contacts with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood but intends to continue doing so, perhaps on a significantly expanded basis. These contacts have been described as "official" by some unnamed sources but are more accurately seen as "informal" or "unofficial" so as to avoid both political and legal embarrassment.
In any event and under whatsoever term, the contacts with the MB will prove controversial. Whether they will turn out as useful remains to be seen.
Not surprisingly, assorted bloggers on the Right have picked up cudgels to pound the current administration into so much jelly. Individuals such as the redoubtable defender of Israel, Barry Rubin, have alleged the Obama administration is once again demonstrating its typical, ill-informed, and counterproductive genuflection before the political totems of the Islamists. Certainly, this US policy lends itself to this interpretation given the context of Obama's apparent hostility to the government of Israel, at least as presently constituted.
It is possible to see the continued and perhaps expanding dialogue between the US and the MB as a pragmatic ploy given the political dynamics within Egypt today and into the near future. The MB in the land of its origin is a very real, very potent political player. Even with self-imposed limitations on the number of parliamentary seats and seeking the presidency, the MB is and will remain the most critical political force in Egypt--the power behind the throne even if a secular rump fills the exalted seat itself. Beyond that consideration, which is non-trivial to say the least, a constructive relation with the MB would assist the US in gaining a degree of rapprochement with other groups in the region which espouse political Islam.
The inducements for the US to have contact with the present senior leadership of the MB is not reduced by the very evident generational split within the Brotherhood. The "Young Turks" of the Egyptian Brotherhood may be quite annoyed with their elders, particularly with the ukase tossing any Brother out of the hood should he break the ban on running for the presidency or join a party other than the official MB organ. The split is real, but its effects are easy to exaggerate.
Also easy to exaggerate is the purported differences between those Brothers who emphasize practical programs aimed at solving the numerous and almost overwhelming social and economic problems currently besetting Egypt and those Brothers for whom the establishment of an Islamic state based on all Shariah all the time is the goal. There is a difference not so much in basic views and understandings separating these two wings of the MB as there is a disparity of tactics, of priorities, and of means.
Neither the "Young Turks" nor the "Old Guard" of the Brotherhood, neither the "practicalists" nor the "idealists" differ on a single basic and highly critical point. Even if this one point is all that binds together the assorted sub-groups within the Brotherhood it would be sufficient to make the MB a potent threat looming over the future of Egypt and the region. Here is the point: No member of the Brotherhood has any more regard for the nature of democracy as understood in the West than Ron Paul has for the Federal Reserve System.
Of course there are a plethora of points upon which all Brothers agree. Israel must go is one. Another is that the sway of Islam must be extended over the House of War. Still another is the debased, evil, and threatening nature of the US. There are others, but you get the drift from this very short list.
The mere fact that the Muslim Brotherhood not only in Egypt but around the world would like to see Israel expunged as the deity laughed with delight or the population of the US boiled in the pit for all eternity as the blessed of the faith watched from the gallery thoughtfully provided in Paradise for the amusement of the Muslim saint is no bar to talking with the Brothers. In past years the various administrations and their diplomats have talked both officially and otherwise with any number of people who sought our defeat. Talking with those who oppose you is one of the most, arguably the most, important aspects of diplomatic work.
Given that the MB in Egypt is a very real fact on the political ground and will remain such for some time to come, it is critical that we convey to them the limits of acceptable conduct. It is even more critical that the Brotherhood's leaders come to understand not only the limits but become convinced that the US will exact a price for any violation of these limits. In this context "contacts" does not imply a dialogue between equals but rather the transmission of facts to an auditor.
If the contacts are limited to the task of delivering a clear understanding of the limits of acceptable conduct as well as the range of possible penalties, the exercise is worth the effort. It is important that the contacts do not fall prey to mission creep. Whenever conversations, particularly those of an allegedly "informal" or "unofficial" nature, take place, the temptation to expand, make official, or otherwise raise the importance and status of the talks exists. This temptation must be resisted. Regardless of any impressions to the contrary, there is no more chance that the Brotherhood or any significant sub-group within the MB will accept American views of proper governance, proper social and political equality, proper policy regarding Israel than there is the Tea Party embracing Obamacare.
The folks on the Right and other reflexive defenders of all things Israeli ought to get a grip and stand down from their ramparts of indignation. The time to man those ramparts will come when and if the Obama administration and its diplomatic personnel get off the track of squaring away the MB on what US policy will allow and what it will not, wandering instead into the bottomless morass of palaver about democracy, transparency, the rule of law and similar (to the mind of a Brother) fables.
After all, Mr Rubin and all you others, it is not possible to draw a line in the sand without talking to the opposition. For the benefit of the Egyptians, the Americans, and, yes, the Israelis, it is rather important that the US draw a line and tell the Brothers of all stripes where the line is and what will happen should they be so ill-advised as to cross it.