The Vanishing Case for U.S. Aid to Egypt

Posted: Aug 22, 2013 12:01 AM
The United States has been providing aid to the Egyptian government for decades, and we have gotten a solid return on the investment. It has bought the U.S. government a lifetime supply of deaf ears.

In 2005, when the Bush administration questioned "Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law," President Hosni Mubarak paid no attention. This year, when Barack Obama urged President Mohammed Morsi to "reach out to the opposition and work through these issues in a political process," Morsi did just the opposite.

After the military removed Morsi and took control, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel phoned Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi 17 times to dissuade him from launching a brutal crackdown on protesters. Sissi's reply could not be heard over the barrage of gunfire that followed, killing hundreds of people.

Maybe the Egyptians have figured out they can do whatever they want without jeopardizing their pot of gold. Maybe $1.5 billion a year in economic and military assistance just doesn't buy much influence anymore. Or maybe the various rulers think they have to trample their opponents at any cost. But we might as well try to bribe an alligator into dancing a jig.

In this context, it may be wise to heed the wisdom of political philosopher Mae West, who said, "Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before." Since providing aid has failed, perhaps withholding it would be more effective.

It's hard to justify using our tax dollars to support a regime whose plan for achieving domestic concord is to slaughter its critics in the streets. We end up being blamed by both sides, for what we did and for what we didn't do. Our complicity makes enemies in a part of the world where we have a surplus already.

Advancing human rights and democracy can't be the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy. There are plenty of times when we are obligated to work with governments whose internal policies offend our principles.

But what do we really gain from subsidizing this one? Not influence: The Egyptians in power keep doing exactly the opposite of what we think serves our interests.

Apparently the generals have provided the U.S. with help in the war on terror, but guess what: They do that for their own purposes, not as a favor to us. Given our outsized military power, they have good reason to keep at it, aid or no aid.

Stability? This concern brings to mind what Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley said in response to criticism of police tactics during the 1968 Democratic convention: "The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

Our support hasn't stopped the successive regimes from taking measures that generate turmoil. Those actions will fuel radical Islamists around the world, some of whom will turn their anger on us.

With its ferocious crackdown, the government may wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood for good. But usually, indiscriminate brutality produces more enemies. One sure result will be to prod Islamists to become more extreme and violent, which could plunge the country into full-scale civil war.

Steven Simon, who worked on the National Security Council under Obama, argued in The New York Times that if we cut off aid, the administration "would be accused by all sides of undermining the country's security and meddling in its affairs." But all sides already accuse us of doing those things, and the more aid we furnish the more credible the charge.

Advocates of the status quo argue that if we stop the money flow, Cairo will turn to Saudi Arabia or Russia or various Gulf states. But considering how little we get for what we spend, does it really matter?

If those other countries saw much to gain from taking our place, they could have outbid us long ago. Taking on a bigger role, they may find the recipient to be a model of ingratitude, just as we did.

Nor is an end to U.S. aid likely to affect the longstanding peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Egypt, with all its other problems, needs a war with Israel like the Sahara needs more sand. Israel, for its part, is quite happy to see the generals back in power. The peace accords will survive without us.

Maybe ending aid to Cairo won't work any better than providing it. But at least we'll have a billion and a half reasons not to care.