The Obama administration has quietly frozen military aid to Egypt, although it is still holding off on publicly calling the army takeover there a coup, which would legally require the U.S. to cut off all assistance.
The office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tells The Daily Beast that the decision is temporary. Administration officials say government lawyers recommended observing the law restricting military aid to be on the safe side while the White House mulls how to handle the intensifying crisis in Egypt.
The policy has yet to sting the authorities in Cairo, where hundreds of people, most of them supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, have died since security forces violently cleared out two massive pro-Morsi sit-ins last week. The Obama administration has frozen $585 million of the $1.3 billion in aid promised to Egypt's military for 2013 — including the delivery of weapons — but the generals in Cairo weren't due to receive it until Sept. 30.
The U.S. is caught between two conflicting goals: Standing up for democratically elected leaders, like Morsi, and maintaining ties with the Egyptian military, a longstanding ally in the region. Aaron David Miller at Foreign Policy predicts that eventually, Obama is headed toward a formal suspension of aid, but only as a last resort.
The president will try to avoid it, just as he's slow-walked military assistance to Syria and opposed an Israeli unilateral strike on Iran. From Obama's perspective, changing the status quo — cutting ties with the generals and risking U.S. military overflight privileges, losing cooperation on counterterrorism, and unilaterally removing the United States from the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David process — outweigh the risks of maintaining it. When it comes to what's left of the Arab Spring, the president seems pretty comfortable with the familiar and at ease with the notion that this region will need to be sorted out by those who live there. The United States should simply hunker down and ride out the storm, if possible. [Foreign Policy]
Of course, this approach comes with serious potential pitfalls. Here's how Ed Morrissey at Hot Air describes a few of them:
The White House has decided to refrain from calling the July 3 takeover by the military a coup, but act as though it was by preventing (temporarily, at least) the transmission of aid. The only analogy that comes to mind here is not eating your cake and then not having it, too. It’s the refusal to publicly acknowledge the obvious about the coup that has damaged American credibility, and the only reason for that policy to exist is to continue aid to the military so that the treaty with Israel is safeguarded. Only now we discover that we're cutting off aid anyway... which means we get to alienate everyone. [Hot Air]
As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tells The Daily Beast, America's leverage over Egypt's military leaders is limited. Plus, Saudi Arabia has vowed to replace any aid withheld by the U.S. and other nations. So even if Obama does permanently yank Egypt's aid, it's not clear it would matter much on the ground.
Many analysts agree that there's only so much influence the U.S. can hope to have as the military, with the backing of liberals who started the rebellion against Hosni Mubarak, fight with Islamists for control over the country's future. The U.S. isn't powerless, though, and The Washington Post says in an editorial that the U.S. has more leverage than many people think.
Not only is the military dependent on U.S. weapons, spare parts and training but the economy, based on tourism and foreign investment, also has no chance of recovering without Western support. The billions in cash supplied to the new regime by Saudi Arabia and other Arab supporters is a temporary salve; in the end, any government seeking stability will need to come to terms with the International Monetary Fund, where U.S. influence is strong.
A forceful and united stand by Western governments against the course the Egyptian military is pursuing could bring the generals to their senses before it is too late. They must be made to understand that a new Egyptian autocracy will never be accepted by the United States or Europe. At the moment, they believe otherwise. [Washington Post]