Egypt and the limits of American muscle

    I’ll cut to the chase: Anyone who’s outraged that President Obama hasn’t flexed American muscle to end the bloodshed in Egypt and put the benighted nation on the path to democracy is basically clueless. We don’t have that kind of muscle in Egypt. We’ve never had it.

    I know it’s a shock to be reminded that America isn’t all-powerful, but so be it. We can’t simply wave a magic wand—canceling our annual $1.3 billion aid to Egypt—and get a magic result. Obama was absolutely right last week, in his comments about the Egyptian military’s thuggish street violence, when he said, “We appreciate the complexity of the situation.” Because, as we shall see momentarily, the situation is very complex indeed.

    The problem is, we Americans don’t do complexity. When we’re confronted with a complex foreign crisis, we typically react in either of two ways: (1) we look for good guys we can identify with and bad guys we can hate, or (2) we simply tune out the whole crisis, especially if no Americans are being killed. In the Egypt crisis, we seem to be trying (and failing with) the first option—coupled with the deluded assumption that we can actually control domestic Egyptian events.

    We can’t control events. It’s symptomatic of our myopic hubris to even think we can.

    Access, not influence

    We’ve been sending aid to Egypt (mostly weapons) for nearly 35 years; at this point, the tab exceeds $30 billion. It’s a bipartisan policy. Republican presidents and Democratic presidents have long viewed this aid as essential—but for strategic reasons vital to our own national interest. Egypt permits our own war planes to fly through its air space; it has stayed civil to Israel ever since the ’79 Camp David peace accord; it has long agreed to speed our warships’ passage through the Suez Canal; it works with us in the war on terrorism. That’s what all the money is for. We’ve never told Egypt: “We’ll give you billions, but only if you promise to become a democracy and respect human rights.”

    In other words, as Egyptian military expert Robert Springborg points out, “We buy access, we don’t buy influence.”

    Any American with even a cursory awareness of recent history should know this. In 1993, when Hosni Mubarak was in his 12th year of ruling Egypt, he rigged the electoral process—and drew a rebuke from President Clinton. Clinton warned that if Mubarak didn’t show more respect for the principles of democracy, America might pull the plug on its annual aid. Mubarak ignored him. Clinton duly backed off, having decided that America’s strategic interests were paramount.

    Fast forward a decade: Mubarak again rigged the electoral process, dispatched thugs to beat up protesters, and arrested a prominent rival politician. This angered the Bush administration, which was big on promoting democracy abroad. But did President Bush cut off the American aid? Nope. He didn’t even bother to threaten a cutoff; he merely told Condoleezza Rice to cancel a planned visit to Egypt. As Bush officials later told foreign policy author James Traub, a cutoff wouldn’t have done any good, and besides, “we have other fish to fry” with Egypt. Namely, the fish I listed three paragraphs ago.

    Even if Obama and Congress agreed to immediately cease all American aid, the current mlitary junta is still going to do as it pleases. The 2013 aid is already out there in the pipeline, which means the generals can operate at full strength for a year or more; meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations are already pumping up their aid to Egypt, more than making up for any potential losses from the American spigot. And that spigot is likely to stay open anyway because American military contractors don’t want to lose their deals with Egypt; if Obama were to nix those deals, the U.S. government would reportedly incur $2 billion in penalties.

    What George said

    And as for the American-style sorting of good guys from bad guys, good luck with that. The junta-induced death toll is horrific, but that doesn’t mean the street rebels are heirs to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. The overthrown Muslim Brotherhood is heavily populated by Islamists who, shall we say, intensely dislike us.

    Bottom line: The knee-jerk flexers of American muscle should quit presuming that it’s our job to solve the Egyptian domestic crisis, or even that we have the tools to solve it. Egyptians have been trying to sort out their domestic woes since the ’30s; they’ll need to play out this chapter as well.

    Indeed, revolutions have long been protracted and bloody. The French Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy, triggered a reign of terror that resulted in 41,000 deaths via guillotine and other forms of summary execution. In America, many demanded that President Washington do something, that he take a moral stand. (Imagine the heat that Washington would’ve faced, if those beheadings had been captured on YouTube and communcated on Twitter). Instead, Washington did nothing. He decreed that it was in America’s national strategic interest to remain “friendly and impartial” to France.

    Obama, practicing a similar realpolitik, could do worse than emulate the first guy in charge.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal