By David Rohde
(Reuters) - Amid violent clashes in Egypt, White House officials argued this week that the United States can't cut off its $1.3 billion a year in assistance to Egypt. To do so would cause Washington to lose "influence" with the country's generals. Vital American security interests are at stake, they said, and keeping the torrent of American aid flowing gives Washington leverage.
If that argument sounds familiar, it is. For the last decade, the United States has used the same logic in Pakistan. The U.S. has given $11 billion in military aid to the Pakistani military in the name of maintaining American "influence" in Islamabad. From new equipment to reimbursements for Pakistani military operations, the money flowed year after year, despite complaints from American officials that the Pakistanis were misusing funds and inflating bills.
Can the United States do better in Egypt? Pakistan and Egypt are vastly different, but as the Obama administration fervently embraces its Pakistani tactics in Egypt, it's worth examining the results of our dollars-for-generals approach.
A decade on, little has changed in Pakistan. The country's military continues to shelter the Afghan Taliban, hundreds of American and Afghan soldiers have died in cross-border attacks from Pakistan and the army remains by far the most powerful institution in the country.
Yes, the government of outgoing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari performed poorly and mismanaged the country's economy. And it's wrong to assume or argue that an effective, efficient civilian government would emerge if Pakistan's army would give up its decades-old domination of the country.
But what did the United States get for its $11 billion? One goal of providing U.S. military aid was to get the Pakistani military to crack down on the thousands of Afghan Taliban who have lived, trained and planned operations from inside Pakistan since 2001. But so far that has not happened. Republicans and Democrats poured money into the coffers of the Pakistani military but it did not change the Pakistani military's long-running view that Afghan Taliban and other militants are useful proxies against Pakistan's arch-rival India.
American officials say the $11 billion did allow the United States to get what it most wanted: drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas that weakened al Qaeda and may have thwarted terrorist attacks in the United States. The strikes fuel sweeping anti-Americanism in Pakistan, but the cold political calculus for any American president, officials argue, is preventing terrorist attacks on the homeland.
So far, the Obama administration appears intent on following the same aid-for-leverage approach in Egypt. The White House delayed the delivery of four new F-16 fighters to Egypt this week. But the fact that the Egyptian military has already killed 140 protesters, twice as many as Iran did in its 2009 crushing of the Green Movement, apparently gives administration officials little pause.
In a visit to Pakistan this week, Secretary of State John Kerry gave the administration's most full-throated defense of the Egyptian military yet. "In effect, they were restoring democracy," Kerry said in a Pakistani television interview. "The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment — so far, so far — to run the country. There's a civilian government."
Last week, the White House announced that the Obama administration would not enforce an American law requiring the U.S. government to cut off American aid to any government the carries out a coup. How? By ignoring it.
"The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination," a White House official told the New York Times. "We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say."
In other words, America will look the other way to maintain "influence" with the Egyptian military. One of the lessons from the last decade in Pakistan is that money might buy American officials a seat at the table. But Pakistani generals or Egyptian generals will not necessarily listen.
And they will definitely blame their problems on us. For the last decade in Pakistan, military officials have used pro-military media outlets to spread a message that an all-powerful United States is behind the country's ills.
The drone strikes are a case in point. Since 2004, the Pakistani military has covertly supported American drone strikes in the country. For years, they allowed American drones to fly out of a Pakistani military base. Pakistani air force planes could have easily shot down slow-moving, propeller-driven American drones at any time — if given the command.
At the same time, Pakistani generals and civilian officials publicly condemned the attacks as an outrageous American violation of their sovereignty. The Taliban insurgency inside the country was fueled by drone strikes, they argued.
No mention was made of the fact that many of the jihadist groups were originally trained and funded by the Pakistani military to serve as proxies against India. After initially supporting the jihadists, Pakistan's military has lost control of many of them.
Some of the same patterns are emerging in Egypt. The Egyptian military blames the United States for the country's ills. They also oversee a vast economic empire that enriches senior officers.
Dalia Mogahed, an expert on Egypt and the former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, believes the United States should take a more aggressive stance in Egypt. Providing $1.3 billion per year with few questions asked is not a recipe for change.
"We need clear conditions on aid that we actually follow through with," Mogahed said in an email. "We're dealing with military massacres of protestors. Our values and our interests dictate that we condition aid on the immediate halt of excessive force and holding accountable those responsible for it."
One administration official, who asked not to be named, argued that there was no alternative to Egypt's generals. If the Sinai, for example, becomes a safe haven for militants, they would pose a direct threat to Israel and the United States. The official said he was skeptical that civilian governments could emerge that could stabilize Egypt and secure the Sinai.
That is the same argument American officials have been making in Pakistan for years. The core question is simple: can democracy emerge in the region?
Putting conditions on our aid that require the Egyptian military to carry out elections will help answer that question. Hurling billions at generals will not. Pakistan has taught us that much.
(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)
(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April. )