Two Disturbing Lessons From Chaos in Cairo

Posted: Feb 02, 2011 12:01 AM

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).

2) The chaos in Cairo shows the limited value of agreements with corrupt, autocratic governments. If the Mubarak regime collapses, promises to America and the crucial peace treaty with Israel may survive – or they may not. Alliances and treaties mean very little when they depend upon the whim of one man, or the fleeting inclinations of an arrogant ruling circle that operates independent of public opinion. Prior to 1979, the Shah of Iran qualified as America’s best friend in the Middle East but when his rule collapsed in the midst of angry demonstrations (and clumsy policy pronouncements by the Jimmy Carter administration), the nation went from U.S. ally to implacable enemy within months. Agreements and understandings with democratically elected governments can bring durable and significant gains, but deals with dictators don’t often outlast the dictator. This principle demonstrates the limited utility of signed pieces of paper (think Hitler and Munich) with authoritarian regimes. Despite the unmistakable benefits for Israel from the three-decades-long peace treaty with Egypt, Israeli leaders have always understood military strength remains the only real guarantee of self-defense, not promises from shaky regimes like Egypt-- or the beleaguered Palestinian Authority.

Embracing the messages from the Egyptian crisis doesn’t mean that Hosni Mubarak deserves our contempt, or that the United States would somehow gain from suddenly and cravenly cutting loose our most important Arab ally. To the extent that U.S. aid purchased long-standing cooperation from the most populous nation in the region (one third of all the world’s Arabs live in Egypt), that assistance may have constituted a prudent investment, and regardless of the future of the Sinai Accords, the epochal agreement negotiated by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin brought thirty years of relative (if frosty) calm to Israeli-Egyptian relations.

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.