Obama cancels joint Egypt maneuvers, leaving military aid untouched for now

Obama issued only veiled threats to halt the military aid to Egypt, demonstrating his reluctance to use what some experts say is Washington's last means to influence a key Mideast ally.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama speaks to the media from his rental vacation home in Chilmark Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Thursday. The president announced that the US is canceling joint military exercise with Egypt amid violence.

President Obama, under pressure to suspend aid to Egypt’s military rulers immediately, Thursday responded to that nation’s violent turn by canceling planned joint military exercises but issuing only veiled threats to halt the aid if Egyptian security forces remain on a repressive path.

The president decided to cancel the biennial Bright Star US-Egypt military exercises set for September but to leave $1.3 billion in annual military assistance untouched for now – despite a crackdown by security forces Wednesday that left more than 500 Egyptians dead and thousands injured. That suggests just how reluctant the administration is to relinquish what some experts say is Washington’s last means of influencing a key Arab ally in a region of critical national security interests.

The US “strongly condemns” the repressive actions carried out by Egypt’s interim government and security forces Wednesday, and “opposes” the martial law declared by the military rulers, said Mr. Obama, who is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard.

Given those actions “our traditional cooperation cannot continue,” Obama said, as he announced cancellation of the Bright Star exercises. Stating that “the Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen in recent days,” the president said that “going forward’ the US would assess the actions of Egypt’s rulers as it determines “further steps that may be necessary.”

Obama’s action Thursday reflects a sense that the US had to do something concrete beyond issuing harsh statements – as Secretary of State John Kerry did Wednesday – especially as criticisms of the administration’s stance piled up overnight.

“As we predicted and feared, chaos in #Cairo,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona tweeted, referencing his position that the administration’s failure to get tough by suspending military aid would embolden military rulers to take repressive steps.

Many human rights organizations and major editorial pages implored Obama to suspend military aid immediately – with some lamenting that the president was playing golf while Egypt burned.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky blasted Obama for condemning the violence in Egypt while continuing “to send billions of taxpayer dollars to help pay for it.” Calling the law “very clear” as to cancellation of foreign aid in the event of a “coup d’etat” – a designation Obama continued to reject Thursday for what transpired when the military removed Mr. Morsi from office – Senator Paul called on Obama to “stop skirting the issue, follow the law, and cancel all foreign aid to Egypt.”  

Democratic members of Congress were more supportive of the president’s approach as outlined Thursday. But Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said that Congress will take up aid to Egypt when it returns from recess in September and suggested that pressure on the administration to cut military aid will only grow in the absence of quick steps by Egypt’s interim rulers to restore democratic rule.

“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step,” Senator Leahy said, “our law is clear: Aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy.” 

There were some suggestions however that Egypt’s military leaders – who had already dismissed US diplomatic efforts last week to resolve peacefully the standoff between supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and security forces – are making a point of keeping the US out of what they see as their domestic business.

According to some reports, the White House attempted to place a call Wednesday to Egypt’s military ruler, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, but was put off and told that Obama’s appropriate interlocutor would be the interim appointed president, Adly Mansour.

The administration is also aware that, as important as US military assistance may be to Egypt, the total $1.6 billion in annual military and economic assistance pales in comparison to the billions of dollars in assistance that wealthy Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provide or have pledged to Egypt.

But Obama made several references in his statement Thursday to US “national interests” as a crucial guide for his actions towards Egypt. Clearly he does not see those interests being served by a cutoff of influence and leverage with Egypt’s rulers.

Obama cited Egypt’s “stability” as one of those guiding national interests, but he also said that “countries are more stable when guided by values” such as nonviolence and universal rights.

Obama’s reluctance to cut off aid including military assistance to Egypt suggests the thinking that the US has a better chance of taking a seat among the outside actors influencing Egypt by maintaining aid than by cutting it off.

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