War Stories

Pyramid Scheme

Why $1.5 billion doesn’t buy Obama (or anyone else) that much influence in Egypt.

Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo September 11, 2012.

American influence in Egypt has been widely overestimated by some observers.

Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Once in a while, I read a newspaper column by a well-educated observer or a speech by an experienced politician, and I wonder: Has this person ever read a book on international relations? Does he know anything about power? Does he understand the basic differences between the world of Cold War times and the world of today?

I’ve been shaking my head in astonishment quite a lot in recent days. The authors of many columns or speeches I’ve read seem to believe that the president of the United States can direct the course of events in Egypt with the proverbial snap of the fingers, and they’re appalled that President Obama seems somehow unable or unwilling to do so.

For instance, Gerald Seib wrote in the July 8 Wall Street Journal: “The goal of the Obama administration ought to be to transcend” the choice between siding with the military and siding with the Muslim Brotherhood and instead “to empower these younger Egyptians”—the ones who organized the protests that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak—“who are large in numbers but short on influence.” Seib added, “This sounds easy, but, in fact, is incredibly hard.” (Perhaps the biggest puzzle about this column is why Seib thinks that his solution “sounds easy.”)

In the July 5 Washington Post, Robert Kagan trashed Obama’s policy toward Egypt, stating that the president “winked” at the coup-plotters and thus betrayed the pro-democracy principles that he’d embraced upon entering the White House.

Around this same time, Sen. John McCain, the Republicans’ most avid spokesman on foreign policy, called for suspending the $1.5 billion in military aid that the United States has allotted to Egypt this year—on the tacit premise that the loss will compel Cairo’s generals to stop shooting their opponents and install a democratic government forthwith.

The problem with all these complaints and proposals is that the United States has little leverage for influencing the internal politics of another country, especially one as large and distant as Egypt. This has nothing to do with President Obama. It is a central fact of international politics today, and it applies not just to the United States but to any single nation, however powerful it may be by traditional measures.

Seib’s plea for Obama “to empower these younger Egyptians” is particularly baffling. It would have been nice—for us and for Egypt—if these English-speaking, Western-leaning technocrats who led the protests in Tahrir Square against Mubarak’s regime could have maneuvered their way into power. But in fact, the subsequent election revealed that they had little support among the Egyptian population (or, in any case, scant ability to mobilize their support), and it’s not clear what Obama could have done—or could yet do—to make them more appealing.

A leading neoconservative scholar, Kagan knows that many, if not most, American presidents have upheld “friendly dictatorships,” often at the sacrifice of democratic movements. He’s angry at Obama for speaking in different tones at the start of his presidency but then acting in the same old Realpolitik way. This could have been the starting point of an analysis about American power in the early 21st century, but Kagan doesn’t go there. Instead he contorts the realities to fit his ideological predispositions, pummeling Obama for winking at the Egyptian coup (when in fact he may have simply been unable to do much about it). By contrast, he praises George W. Bush for having “tried, albeit unevenly, to reshape American relations with the dictatorships of the Arab world” (when, in fact, those efforts proved uniformly disastrous).

Most observers writing about the chaos in Egypt recognize that the United States no longer enjoys the influence it once did in the Middle East. But they seem to think that the leverage could be restored if only Obama tried harder or thought more creatively. They are deeply mistaken.

The great irony of the past 20 years is that the end of the Cold War left the United States—the winner—less powerful than it was before, at least in the sense that “power” means the ability to impose one’s will on someone else. The Cold War was a dreadful era, but it was also an international system of security. The world was divided in two spheres, and countries in between often subordinated their own interests to the leader of one of those spheres—either at will or by force—for the sake of their security. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Cold War system fell apart as well. Some of the countries in between continued to follow the surviving superpower, out of shared interests, but others felt free to go their own way.

America’s relationship with Egypt took off in the late 1970s, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, when President Anwar Sadat cut off ties with his Soviet suppliers and—still needing the support of some superpower—switched to the West’s agenda, even going so far as to sign a peace treaty with Israel (a move that may have got him assassinated). Egypt soon became the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid (topped only by Israel), one result of which was the tight relationship between U.S. and Egyptian military officers, which continues to this day.

However, because the Cold War is over, very different dynamics drive the politics of the Middle East, and while relations with the United States are an important factor in Egyptian politics, they are far from the only factor, not even in strictly monetary terms. Within days of President Morsi’s ouster, the crowned heads of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—the leaders of the region’s anti-Islamist alliance—agreed to give Egypt a total of $12 billion in grants and loans (eight times the amount of U.S. aid this year).

This points to the fallacy of McCain’s thinking in particular. If the United States pulled its aid, it would be a hardship for Egypt, but it wouldn’t be disastrous. (A bit of awkwardness here is that U.S. law requires cutting off aid to any foreign government that takes power through a military coup. This is why the Obama administration has devised lots of ways to avoid calling Morsi’s ouster a “coup,” even though that clearly is what it was.)

The fact is, if Washington wants to maintain some influence in Cairo, if U.S. officials and generals and potential investors want someone in Egypt to pick up the phone when they call, they have to ante up. This has been the dilemma facing the Obama administration for the past year of turbulence: It must maintain some relations with the Egyptian government, whoever is in power and however unpleasant they may be. (The administration abandoned Mubarak only when it became clear that he was going to be shoved out, regardless of the U.S. stance.) Staying on the inside allows the United States to nudge Egyptians with advice, inducements, or incentives to take steps that promote U.S. interests—and what westerners regard as Egyptian interests. But this is about all that any American president—any outside leader—can do. To think otherwise is to engage in dangerous nostalgia.