War Stories

Stop Paying the Generals

President Obama must cut off aid to Egypt’s military—now.

President Obama makes a statement about the violence in Egypt while at his rental vacation home on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard.

President Obama makes a statement about the violence in Egypt while at his rental vacation home at Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 15, 2013. The time for talk is over, though, and the time for ending military aid to Egypt is now.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

The United States should cut off all military aid to Egypt.

There! That was quick, easy, morally satisfying. It might even be strategically smart. Or it might not be. Would cutting off aid have any effect on the Egyptian military’s actions, or on America’s reputation among the Egyptian people, or on the contours of Middle Eastern politics? Would continuing aid have any such effect? What kind of effect would we like our policies to have on the country and the region? And even if we figured that one out, how much leverage can we—or any outside power—exert to make it so?

In its latest “IntelBrief,” the Soufan Group defines geopolitical policymaking in a complex environment as “the cognitive equivalent of juggling knives of different sizes while riding a unicycle on an uneven surface,” adding, “Few can do this at all, and fewer still are able to do it well.”

No wonder, then, that President Obama seemed rather feckless on Thursday, as he took a break from golfing on Martha’s Vineyard to declare that, in response to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Cairo (the death toll had already exceeded 500), the United States was canceling next month’s joint military exercise. Obama said nothing about the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. military aid , nor did he come any closer to characterizing the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi as a “coup”—a statement that, by U.S. law, would have required a suspension of aid.

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama has never been one to take a moral stance without regard to national interests. He has criticized George W. Bush for his moralistic tendencies and is well aware of the dreadful policies they unleashed—most notably the invasion of Iraq, which, though it toppled Saddam Hussein, also boosted the power of Iran, re-energized al-Qaida, and did much to destabilize the region.

So the first question Obama would have asked, when weighing his options in the face of Egypt’s crackdown, was surely: How will Policy X, Y, or Z affect U.S. interests?

An alliance with Egypt has served those interests in several ways. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty has given America’s main ally in the region 30 years of breathing space on its southern border, allowing it to focus on threats from the north and the east without feeling completely surrounded. The Egyptian military has also been active in quashing terrorist groups in the northern Sinai. It has served as the region’s westernmost bulwark against Iranian expansion. And it has allowed the U.S. military overflight rights and fast passage through the Suez Canal.

These are no small matters. However, Egypt’s leaders do these things not because of American largesse but because it is in their interests. The Egyptians do not want to incite a war, or an arms race, with Israel. They don’t want terrorists roaming free in their northern territories. They fear and loathe the prospect of Iranian expansion. As for overflight rights and passage through the Suez, one can imagine some reluctance in certain crises if the American military were no longer a bountiful presence. But in most of these prospective crises, the United States and Egypt would be on the same side, and in those instances when they may not be, there are other portals of entry. Egypt no longer plays the unique role, politically or geographically, that it once did in the Arab world.

It’s worth recalling the origins of the Washington-Cairo partnership. After his disastrous defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted to break away from his tight alliance with the Soviet Union. Given the Cold War’s geopolitics, a country of Egypt’s size and location needed protection from one superpower or the other, so Sadat turned to the United States, which stepped in with glee, supplying arms, aid, and advice of all sorts. (Egypt has ranked second to Israel as a recipient of American military assistance ever since.) In exchange, Sadat signed a treaty with Israel and backed the West on most international issues. This tilt may have gotten Sadat assassinated by Islamist militants, but Egypt’s military remained ensconced in America’s orbit, and so did Egypt’s successive governments.

This was because, essentially, the Egyptian government is the Egyptian military. This was true during the reign of Hosni Mubarak (who was a general), during the reign of Morsi, and—here’s the key point—during the massive protests that led to the downfall of both presidents. The generals felt it was well within their rights to oust them when their regimes fell short and the economy was on the verge of collapse, because they—the generals—were in charge of both the political system and much of the country’s economy.

Keep in mind, the Arab Spring did not herald the rise of a new order; it signaled the collapse of the old order. The opposite of “authoritarianism” is not necessarily “democracy” or “freedom.” To think otherwise is to indulge in Cold War sentimentalism; the notion stems from an era when the fall of a pro-Soviet regime often meant the rise of a pro-American regime—though, even then, the new regimes didn’t necessarily abide by Jeffersonian principles. Now, though, in a world of no fixed power centers, the collapse of a dictatorial regime means just that. The aftermath can be any number of things, and depends in good part on the particular country’s underlying social order: its level of literacy, its economic well-being, and its basic power structure.

In Egypt it didn’t matter, really, that the inspiring street protests were instigated and led by Western-leaning, English-speaking, social media-savvy young people. More important was the fact that the revolutionaries had no constituencies among the broader population. The faction that won the ensuing election would be the faction that had the best-organized constituency; that was the Muslim Brotherhood. But elections alone do not make a democracy without democratic institutions, and given the decades of Mubarak’s rule, there were no such institutions. The faction that assumed power would be the faction that had power: the military. And so it remains.

So, Obama, observing the horrifying events on the streets of Cairo, had to understand that, however this turns out, the military is likely to remain in charge. If the United States wants to have influence in Egypt, it will be through the Egyptian military. And so, while a debate continues within his administration over what ultimately to do, his initial reaction to the bloodshed was strikingly minimal.

But this returns us to the question of how much influence the United States could have, regardless of our continued largesse and tolerance. It’s a big question that some political scientist should research: Do the accoutrements of a military alliance—all the money and aid and networking—buy influence for a large power? Do the old techniques of (let’s not mince words) bribery still work in an era when the global system has fractured and smaller powers have lots of options? We’ve devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to the survival of Nouri al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq and Hamid Karzai’s in Afghanistan. But that hasn’t kept them from spitting in our eye when it’s in their perceived interests to do so.

During the Cold War, Sadat abided by U.S. interests as a necessity. He needed aid and comfort from one of the two superpowers, and he’d just deserted the other’s camp for ours. Now, the Egyptian generals don’t have to kowtow; they can pursue their own interests, and go their own way when their interests conflict with ours. This is the case, despite all the years that they spent at American war colleges, learning American war doctrine and consorting with American generals. It’s the case, despite the pleas for restraint from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the daily phone calls to the same effect from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

It may well be that our influence—or lack thereof—will be the same, regardless of whether we keep aiding the Egyptian military. If it’s unclear what course of action will best serve U.S. interests, maybe that leaves a clear path to pursue U.S. values instead.

And so, in full acknowledgment of the uncertainties, dilemmas, and risks, I return to the first line of this column: The United States should cut off all military aid to Egypt.