Ideology isn’t something that any leader can turn on and off at will, but that does not necessarily lead to irrational policy making.
Two references to ideology in a New York Times article on the recently declared ceasefire in Gaza stand out. First, President Obama is reported as having told his aides that, “he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology.”
Second, Robert Satloff, executive directior of the Washington Institute for Near East, had the following advice for President Obama:
I would caution the president from believing that President Morsi has in any way distanced himself from his ideological roots. But if the president takes away the lesson that we can affect Egypt’s behavior through the artful use of leverage, that’s a good lesson. You can shape his behavior. You can’t change his ideology.
Is it Morsi’s ideology that we should be concerned about? Or that of analysts of post-Mubarak Egypt, whose own ideological preconceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with Hamas lead to dim views on the prospects for cooperative U.S.-Egyptian relations?
Also, while there are identifiable tenets of Brotherhood ideology, how Morsi interprets and applies them will be a function of a host of factors, so a static take seems unlikely. One factor will be American projections of the relative importance of ideology to Egypt’s foreign policy. Given this, de-emphasizing Morsi’s ideology is of as little point as exaggerating its significance. The U.S. should seek to project a more realistic understanding of the role of ideology in foreign policy – that it informs the policies of all states to some degree, is multi-faceted, and that at certain times, some aspects will be more pronounced than others. It is not because reason trumped ideology that these two states were able to work together to broker a ceasefire, but rather a reflection of the fact that ideologically informed policies need not preclude cooperation.