There may be little the United States can do to end the savage bloodletting in Egypt, but at least our nation can be loyal to its ideals by bearing witness and telling the truth. In this, President Obama has failed.

A day after Egypt’s military-backed “interim” government slaughtered hundreds of protesters and assumed sweeping emergency powers, Obama still could not bring himself to call what is happening a coup d’etat. Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, he described it as an “intervention.” In Cairo, meanwhile, authorities were still counting the bodies of those slain in Wednesday’s massacre.

As of this writing, the government has acknowledged 578 dead. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose protest encampments were targeted in the crackdown, claims that victims number more than 2,000. There was no estimate of how many Brotherhood activists throughout Egypt have been rounded up.

Images of the brutal assault were shocking. Troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators without warning. The interior minister’s claim that soldiers did not use live ammunition was the kind of bald-faced lie that only repressive governments think they can get away with; Western correspondents described seeing protesters cut down by sniper fire, as well as coming under fire themselves.

A Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed el-Beltagi, spoke defiantly to reporters shortly after learning that his 17-year-old daughter Asmaa was among the dead. An unidentified woman stood in front of a government bulldozer, blocking its way and protecting an injured young man, in a tableau reminiscent of the famous photograph from Tiananmen Square in which a man faced down a line of tanks.

I can think of many words to describe such scenes. “Intervention” is not one of them.

Obama announced that in response to the violence, he is canceling a planned U.S.-Egypt joint military exercise. This is supposed to send a message of disapproval to the generals while still retaining influence and leverage.

The same rationale keeps Obama from calling what has happened to Egypt by its proper name. Using the word “coup” would require the United States to cut off $1.3 billion in military aid — and thus surrender the usefulness of long-standing military-to-military relationships.

But it should be clear by now that this policy is chasing a mirage. Those back-channel connections with the Egyptian generals didn’t stop them from deposing President Mohamed Morsi, which the U.S. warned against. Those old-boy relationships didn’t prevent Wednesday’s assault to clear the protest camps, which the U.S. also warned against. When is the administration going to realize that Cairo isn’t listening?

Even some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood acknowledge that Morsi was not a very good president. As Obama noted Thursday, “his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians.” It is likely that a majority wanted someone else in office who would take the country’s nascent democracy in a different direction.

But the way to oust elected leaders is with ballots, not bullets. How can the United States claim to stand for democracy and ignore this fundamental precept? How could Secretary of State John Kerry say, as he did earlier this month, that the Egyptian military was “in effect … restoring democracy” by seizing power and throwing the president in jail?

Since the most Westernized segments of Egyptian society were among Morsi’s opponents — and were calling for a coup — perhaps U.S. officials had some reason to hope that there would be a quick return to democracy, and even that the next elected government would be more to the administration’s liking.

But such an outcome — which was never likely, history shows — would have required the interim government and its military strongman, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, to rule in the spirit of reconciliation. It would have required renewing the Muslim Brotherhood’s faith in the political process, which would have meant making accommodations and concessions.

Instead, the new government chose the iron fist.

With Wednesday’s carnage, the military — perhaps deliberately — has weakened Muslim Brotherhood moderates who favored giving democracy a chance, while strengthening extremists who advocate violence. When there are more church-burnings, when there are more attacks on police stations and military outposts, the military will use such atrocities as excuses for ever more brutal repression.

U.S. officials can no longer harbor illusions about the nature of the Egyptian coup or the prospects for genuine democracy. President Obama should speak the truth and cut off military aid.

“America cannot determine the future of Egypt,” the president said. Which means the least we can do is stand for what we believe.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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