The United States should cut off all military aid to Egypt.
There! That was quick, easy, morally satisfying. It might even be strategically smart. Or it might not be. Would cutting off aid have any effect on the Egyptian military’s actions, or on America’s reputation among the Egyptian people, or on the contours of Middle Eastern politics? Would continuing aid have any such effect? What kind of effect would we like our policies to have on the country and the region? And even if we figured that one out, how much leverage can we—or any outside power—exert to make it so?
In its latest “IntelBrief,” the Soufan Group defines geopolitical policymaking in a complex environment as “the cognitive equivalent of juggling knives of different sizes while riding a unicycle on an uneven surface,” adding, “Few can do this at all, and fewer still are able to do it well.”
No wonder, then, that President Obama seemed rather feckless on Thursday, as he took a break from golfing on Martha’s Vineyard to declare that, in response to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Cairo (the death toll had already exceeded 500), the United States was canceling next month’s joint military exercise. Obama said nothing about the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. military aid , nor did he come any closer to characterizing the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi as a “coup”—a statement that, by U.S. law, would have required a suspension of aid.
When it comes to foreign policy, Obama has never been one to take a moral stance without regard to national interests. He has criticized George W. Bush for his moralistic tendencies and is well aware of the dreadful policies they unleashed—most notably the invasion of Iraq, which, though it toppled Saddam Hussein, also boosted the power of Iran, re-energized al-Qaida, and did much to destabilize the region.
So the first question Obama would have asked, when weighing his options in the face of Egypt’s crackdown, was surely: How will Policy X, Y, or Z affect U.S. interests?
An alliance with Egypt has served those interests in several ways. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty has given America’s main ally in the region 30 years of breathing space on its southern border, allowing it to focus on threats from the north and the east without feeling completely surrounded. The Egyptian military has also been active in quashing terrorist groups in the northern Sinai. It has served as the region’s westernmost bulwark against Iranian expansion. And it has allowed the U.S. military overflight rights and fast passage through the Suez Canal.
These are no small matters. However, Egypt’s leaders do these things not because of American largesse but because it is in their interests. The Egyptians do not want to incite a war, or an arms race, with Israel. They don’t want terrorists roaming free in their northern territories. They fear and loathe the prospect of Iranian expansion. As for overflight rights and passage through the Suez, one can imagine some reluctance in certain crises if the American military were no longer a bountiful presence. But in most of these prospective crises, the United States and Egypt would be on the same side, and in those instances when they may not be, there are other portals of entry. Egypt no longer plays the unique role, politically or geographically, that it once did in the Arab world.