Members of the Egyptian Republican Guard stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed president Mohamed Mursi. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
Of course the United States ought to cut off military aid to Egypt. (For that matter, it ought to drastically cut down on military aid to all countries across the board.) But with the Obama administration flailing in confusion about how to respond to the military coup that ousted the odious Muslim Brotherhood in July, it’s important to remember two things: first, American influence in Egypt, in the Middle East and around the world is declining fast, as I noted yesterday. And second, whether or not the United States aids Egypt militarily will have very little bearing, if any, on Egypt’s future course.
In what was intended to be an on-one-hand, on-the-other hand decision yesterday, the US administration cut some aid to Egypt’s military and let other aid flow. The United States will “withhold the delivery of several big-ticket items, including Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts and F-16 warplanes, as well as $260 million for the general Egyptian budget,” reports The New York Times. But other aid, including support for counterterrorism and border control, will continue.
In a long, twisted-and-turning background briefing yesterday, five—count ’em! five!—administration officials tried to explain and justify the split decision. Said one official, explaining what was supposedly an effort to send a message to Egypt that the United States is very unhappy:
We also will continue assistance that advances our vital security objectives like countering terrorism, countering proliferation, and ensuring security in the Sinai. We will also continue support like military training and education, and will continue spare parts, replacement parts, and related services for the military equipment that we provide.
Take that, Egypt! That same official made it clear that Egypt can get it all back, even what’s suspended, if it signals “progress on the democratic transition.” Another official explained that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had a “friendly” conversation with Egypt’s military boss—the twentieth such conversation they’ve had in the past several months—during which, with Benghazi on his mind, Hagel “discussed the importance of continuing to secure US embassies and facilities in Egypt, and providing for the security of Americans in Egypt.” In other words, it’s all about us. Hagel, said the official, told General Al-Sisi that the United States wants Egypt to know that continuing military training of Egyptian officers is “really a symbol of our long-term relationship with Egypt.”
He hopes. In Pakistan, of course, in the 1980s, when the United States cut off aid and training missions there, a whole generation of Pakistani military officers grew up without any connection to the United States, many of them hard-core Islamists, and since then they’ve been running the place. In Washington, officials are well aware that Egypt has plenty of options besides the United States for military support, including the option of turning to Russia. And Saudi Arabia, which strongly backs the military’s takeover in Cairo, has poured billions of dollars into Egypt’s coffers since July. It dwarfs anything that the United States can provide.
So, really, what leverage does the United States have? Not much.
And Egypt is not impressed. According to The Wall Street Journal, the spokesman for Egypt’s military isn’t happy, saying that Egypt will “adjust” its policy toward the United States:
Some accords, such as American ships’ special access to the Suez Canal, should be “adjusted,” said Col. Ahmed Ali, the spokesman for the Egyptian military. “The U.S. is abandoning Egypt as it fights a serious war against terror,” he said. “This is a stance that doesn’t coincide with such a strong, long-standing relationship.”
And the Journal reports this:
Some people reacted with anger on Wednesday, saying that Egypt was better off without the aid and could seek out other sources of military financing in China, Russia or the Persian Gulf. “This is actually a chance for Egypt to be free of this burden,” said Tahani Al Gabali, a former constitutional court justice and a vocal opponent of the Brotherhood and U.S. influence in Egypt. “The U.S. is pressuring Egypt to allow the Brotherhood back into politics and it won’t work. Unfortunately, the current American administration has a failed foreign policy.”
Exactly right. Indeed, since the very start of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and the toppling of former President Mubarak in February 2011, the United States has tacked this way and that in response, often buffeted by the self-serving demands of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other conservative regional powers who feared what might happen post-Mubarak. Yet very little of what the United States did accomplished anything at all, and events in Egypt proceeded independently of American design.
Of course, various neoconservatives, hawks and pro-Israel members of Congress, plus The Wall Street Journal, are aghast at the suspension of even part of US aid to Egypt’s military. Said Eliot Engel, the pro-AIPAC Democrat in the House:
“I am disappointed that the Administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt. During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them.”
In other words, says Engel, let’s back the Egyptian army to the hilt. Well, the Egyptian army will do what it wants, including, it appears, putting former president Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood on trial early next month. Egypt may or may not eventually find its way back to some sort of democratic-style constitution, or it might settle in to military rule for, say, a decade or two. What Washington does, or doesn’t, do won’t make much difference.
The Nation’s editors take on the GOP shutdown.