Why Obama Won't Cut Aid to the Egyptian Military

Perhaps the most mystifying thing about the cosmetic US response to Wednesday's massacre in Egypt is the reluctance for the US to use its massive aid leverage over Cairo's generals.

Former diplomats and foreign policy professionals in Washington are often quick to say the situation is more complicated than a simple aid cutoff will allow. But after President Obama responded to one of the bloodiest days in recent Egyptian history by cancelling a scheduled military exercise, even those cautious policy practitioners were stunned by his meekness.

"If I'm an Egyptian general, I take notice and think President Obama is trying to take the least painful step to demonstrate to various constituencies in the US that he means what he says about democracy in Egypt," said Amy Hawthorne, who until recently was an Egypt policy official at the State Department, "but only the least painful step, so we won't take him that seriously."

Obama's cancellation of US participation in the biannual Bright Star training exercise is actually out of step with what Washington typically does when displeased with Egypt, two and a half years after the downfall of longtime dictator and US client Hosni Mubarak. That is: it's a concrete step, as opposed to a rhetorical expression of regret and disappointment. It follows on last month's decision to halt the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian military.

"The fact that [Obama] has taken an assertive step forward is welcome," said Tarek Radwan, an analyst at the influential Atlantic Council, "it's just simply not enough."

Radwan's perspective reflects a crystallizing sense in the Washington foreign policy community that Wednesday's slaughter – 525 Egyptians dead in a single day – marks a turning point in the Egyptian tumult and exposes the rudderlessness of the Obama administration.

Ever since the generals ousted Mohamed Morsi, the erratic and authoritarian president who was nevertheless Egypt's first elected leader, the Obama administration has calculated that it needed to stay engaged with the generals in order to maintain any US leverage over the course of Egyptian events. They laboriously maintained – with the acquiescence of most of Congress – that there was never a coup, which by law would prompt a cutoff of aid. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, even made the extraordinary statement that the military leadership that the generals who still hold Morsi incommunicado were "restoring democracy.

Paramount among US concerns was that the military not massacre Egyptian civilians. Secretary of defense Chuck Hagel talked almost daily with his counterpart, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, urging him to "take steps to prevent further bloodshed and loss of life," as a typical phone call on July 27 went.

But now the further bloodshed has happened, in direct contravention of the stated urging of Washington.

Yet at the Pentagon on Thursday, the message remained the same. While the US deplores the violence and urges "restraint", Hagel – who spoke with Sisi Thursday – believes "that maintaining an open line of communication with General Sisi is very important", said top spokesman George Little.

"All the things the US has repeatedly, publicly, called for, by our most senior officials, haven't happened," Hawthorne said, shortly after Obama's statement on Egypt. "So why are they still calling for them?"

The US has massive amounts of leverage over Egypt, in the form of approximately $1.5bn worth of annual aid. Yet for a variety of reasons, it does not exercise that leverage – something several Egypt experts say substantively weakens the credibility of the warnings that Washington periodically issues to Cairo, contributing to events like Wednesday's massacre.

Among them: the aid is "a jobs program" for American defense companies, Radwan noted. That is, it subsidizes defense firms that build and provide the military hardware featured on Cairo's streets. "The aid that we give to Egypt is coming back to the US and keeping 30 of my people working," the president of a Michigan firm that produces tank parts recently told NPR.

Then comes US congressional indifference, a natural outgrowth of the desire to keep jobs on the line during a weak economy and the post-911 political allergy to the Islamist tinge of Morsi's elected government. That indifference has notable exceptions, like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who favor more punitive steps against the generals. Without Washington elites pushing against the administration, its reluctance to cut Egypt off goes unchallenged.

US legislators, like powerful media figures, "think of themselves as pro-democracy and the violence horrifies them," said Marc Lynch of George Washington University. "But they didn't want to go to the mat for the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi got ousted."

Accordingly, the Egyptians have now withstood years – decades, even – of loose talk from Washington about cutting off the aid, which the US gives in exchange for peace with Israel, and think, as Lynch put it, "you give us this money for Camp David, it's our money." The result is a vicious cycle where Washington's leverage diminishes as a matter of perception, enfeebling Washington's ability to actually influence Egyptian events – absent the aid cutoff that Washington feels will enfeeble its ability to influence Egyptian events.

That perspective is entrenched. It was best expressed on Thursday by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who tweeted: "Agree with US line re Egypt: cancel exercise, keep aid in place, but puts generals on notice that time running out absent restraint/reform."

The argument for the status quo holds that an aid cutoff would do little to help the Egyptians it is designed to assist. The United Arab Emirates and the Saudis would backfill any actual loss of aid, out of their own desires to repress democracy and Islamism.

Radwan, who thinks Egypt has now cycled back to the pre-Mubarak status quo ante, views that argument as uncreative apologism.

"The Gulf purse strings are not infinite," he said. "That money is fickle. The US aid relationship has been stable for the last 30 years, in excess of $30bn. That's a reliable figure that the Egyptian military has built into its budget. It's something they can trust. [Gulf money's] future is highly unpredictable."

Indeed, many are growing dissatisfied with the status quo and Obama's reluctance to change it now that Cairo's streets are stained with blood.Lynch wrote that Obama must now cut off all aid to Egypt and cease "pretending" that its military government is legitimate.

As of today, the Obama administration "wants to avoid taking a really dramatic step and keep hoping that each sort of turn of the wheel" can bring an improvement for stability and democracy, Hawthorne said.

"But that is not a realistic assessment of what is going on in Egypt."

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