As it watches the widening political protest in Egypt, the Obama administration finds itself with few options that could help resolve the situation. In essence, it’s a balance between security and democracy.
Unwilling to call for an outright end to the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak – the bottom line for those protesting in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt – the White House threatens a “review” of foreign aid.
But would the administration end or cut the $1.5 billion in military and economic aid it provides each year to Egypt? That’s unlikely. It’s been a mainstay of US policy in the region ever since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.
Over the years, the annual sum has included money for programs aimed at promoting democracy in a state run by one man for more than a generation. But the great majority (some $1.3 billion a year) is for the Egyptian military and security forces – F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, tanks, and other equipment (including, as some of the protesters pointed out this week, the tear gas canisters fired at demonstrators).
"The way I see it the US administration supports dictators," one protester told ABC News.
For now, although administration officials talk up the right of all people – including Egyptians – to full democracy and free political expression, the US is maintaining a neutral stance on Mubarak’s future.
Scores reported killed
As the drama on the streets of Cairo unfolds hour by hour, with more than 100 estimated dead so far, it’s a difficult position for the White House.
"This is the most serious foreign policy crisis the administration has faced," Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the Associated Press. "The paradox is, there is little if anything the administration can do."
That $1.5 billion in annual aid has morphed from carrot to stick with the promised White House “review.” And a handful of lawmakers – mainly a few tea partyers, including newly-elected Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky – are calling for across-the-board cuts in (if not an end to) foreign aid as a way of eliminating the budget deficit.
That’s easier said than done, however – not least because Egypt is key to efforts for lasting peace in the region, including the future of Israel, the fight against Islamic extremists, and the situation in Iran.
“It's worth noting that [Egypt] employs some of the most powerful and high-profile lobbyists in the District of Columbia,” writes Chris Good, associated editor at The Atlantic. “Since 2007, the government of Egypt has contracted Tony Podesta, president of the Podesta Group and brother of former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta; former representative Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, who nearly succeeded Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House [but for a sex scandal]; and former representative Toby Moffett (D) of Connecticut.”
Foreign-agent lobbyists for Egypt
“All remain active agents for Egypt, according to the US Department of Justice,” writes Good. “Among the top lobbyists in D.C., the three signed a one-year contract to work for Egypt through their joint venture, the PLM lobbying group, in October 2007. That contract had the option of a one-year extension, and the three went on to register independently as foreign-agent lobbyists for Egypt in March 2009.”
“Egypt agreed to pay them a total of $1.1 million per year to ‘provide assistance and advice, as requested, to the Embassy in the task of securing and further enhancing the interests of Egypt in the United States in the political, economic, military and other fields’…,” according to the contract cited by Good. “The three were employed to give Egypt strategic advice, assist with requests for military aid, make contacts with US government officials, assist in Egyptian officials' visits to the US, utilize corporate contacts, and work within the US business community's Washington offices to improve Egypt's image for investment.”
As the drama in Egypt unfolds, pressure grows on the Obama administration to do more than offer mild advice and veiled warnings to Mubarak.
“The basic elements of American policy were built to reflect the realities of the 1970s through the 1990s. But they are now outmoded,” writes George Washington University political scientist Nathan Brown on Foreign Policy magazine’s web site. “It is past time to acknowledge that the region we are dealing with is changing in some fundamental – but still inchoate – ways.”