The ongoing turbulence in Egypt transmits two profound and disturbing lessons to American policy makers and all those who care about international affairs.
1) No Amount of Foreign Aid can redeem a deeply dysfunctional society. Since 1979, Egypt has been one of the top recipients of American assistance, with taxpayers investing more than $70 billion (adjusted for inflation). The angry demonstrations against the Mubarak regime show that no amount of aid can guarantee stability, prosperity, democratic institutions or even a reliably pro-American foreign policy. At the United Nations, Egypt has voted against the United States some 70% of the time, resembling Venezuela and Iran more than American allies like the United Kingdom and Israel. While the Mubarak government has provided important support for American aims in the War on Terror, the vast quantities of American aid combine with the shaky status of the current government to show that no amount of U.S. generosity can purchase reliable friends or insure that struggling nations will develop benign and durable institutions. American aid seems to work only with nations that are headed in the right direction in the first place. Overall, Senator Rand Paul is right about the need for major cuts in the overall budget of international assistance: foreign aid (even to our noble ally, Israel) constitutes a questionable investment at a time of budgetary crisis. Some thoughtful Israelis have reached the same conclusion, by the way, and will back a reduction in assistance to the Jewish state if the administration simultaneously eliminates money to Israel’s Arab neighbors (most notably including the Egyptians).
Nevertheless, the current turmoil demonstrates that the benefits of big aid budgets and much-heralded international treaties may prove ephemeral and limited. Those who believe that permanent or even long-term benefits can result from bribes or negotiations with shady, authoritarian regimes will repeat the same miscalculations that have too frequently warped American policy in the past.