Crisis in Egypt: US seeks to preserve influence. Is there any left?

The administration's cautious approach to Egypt, far from preserving its influence, may have signaled to the military rulers that the US needs Egypt more than the reverse, analysts say.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest answers questions at the White House in Washington, Aug. 19. Earnest said, 'Our aid and assistance relationship with Egypt is under a review, but it has not been cut off.' President Obama ordered a review of military aid to Egypt in early July, but that review 'has not concluded,' Earnest said.

The Obama administration’s cautious approach to Egypt and the behind-the-scenes, program-by-program review it is undertaking of US military aid to Egypt suggests it is seeking a way to preserve influence with the country’s new military rulers.

But that influence has dwindled to mattering very little as the military pursues its domestic political goals full steam ahead, regional analysts say. If anything, some of them add, the administration’s careful efforts to preserve a decades-old regional security strategy based on Egypt may only be encouraging Egypt’s generals to proceed knowing that the US needs Egypt more than Egypt needs the US.

“The administration’s cautious, step-by-step approach only reinforces the thinking in the minds of the generals” that they can proceed on the “very dangerous” repressive path they’ve chosen under the assumption that America values a stable Egypt too much to cut it loose, says Brian Katulis, a senior analyst of US national security interests in the Middle East at Washington’s Center for American Progress.

President Obama’s unwillingness to publicly and definitely cut off $1.6 billion in mostly military assistance to Egypt reminds Mr. Katulis of a scene from the movie Brokeback Mountain, “where one cowboy tells the other, ‘I don’t know how to quit you,’ ” he says.

“Obama is saying by his actions that the US does not know how to quit Egypt – and the generals see that,” Katulis says.

The administration’s hesitant approach and its fuzzy answers to questions on current US policy toward Egypt appear to have fostered confusion Tuesday over whether or not the US has in fact halted military assistance.

An aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has called for a suspension of military assistance, was quoted Tuesday as saying the administration had informed Senator Leahy’s foreign operations subcommittee that “transfer of military aid was stopped.”

The aide, David Carle, went on to say that the suspension was “not necessarily official policy,” according to the Associated Press, and that “there is no indication how long it will last.”

Administration officials poured cold water on any claims of a halt in aid, however, with Pentagon spokesman George Little saying categorically, “There has been no decision to halt or to suspend assistance to Egypt.”

At the State Department, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday “We have not made a policy decision to halt our aid to Egypt, period.” At the same time, Mr. Obama planned to hold a cabinet-level meeting Tuesday afternoon at which the question of aid to Egypt would be addressed, officials said.           

The administration is now reviewing the delivery – programmed for this month – of 10 Apache attack helicopters, and a subsequent delivery of “kits” for the assembly of armored tanks. The State Department has informed congressional committees that these and other programmed military hardware packages are “under review.”

The administration is actually undertaking two reviews, according to Ms. Harf: a “legal review” of what aid programs might be limited by US law that prohibits military assistance in the case of a military coup against a democratically elected government; and a “broad review” of US policy toward Egypt and whether or not aid should proceed given conditions on the ground in Egypt and US national interests. 

The Obama administration has already halted the planned delivery to Egypt of F-16 fighter jets, and the president announced last Friday the cancellation of a joint US-Egypt military exercise planned for September.

But it remains unclear what if any leverage such moves, which amount to a rebuke of Egypt’s military rulers, give the US.

For one thing, the initial limited rebukes of Egypt and the broader policy review come as others in the region – including US partners Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even Israel – have pledged to make up for any lost aid and decreased military cooperation Egypt incurs as a result of its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The military rulers’ string of recent actions – including Tuesday’s arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, and preparations to ban again an organization that only since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 was allowed to participate in elections – indicate clearly which of Egypt’s outside partners have the leadership’s ear.

That reality is not news to the Obama administration, Katulis of the Center for American Progress says. “Very few people in the administration are under the illusion that any of the actions we’ve already taken, or the actions we’re likely to take, will have much influence on the domestic political situation,” he says.

That view echoes some of the few candid statements out of the administration, including from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said Tuesday, “Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited.” He added, “It’s up to the Egyptian people.… It will be their responsibility to sort this out.”

The Obama administration is under no illusions that “holding back all the aid would somehow increase the likelihood of [Egypt] … returning to a path towards democracy,” Katulis says.

What is driving the administration’s very careful response to Egypt is a pragmatic assessment that a top-to-bottom redo of relations with Egypt could have a wide impact on US national security interests in a critical region of the world.

“What they are concerned about is a regional security strategy the US has long relied on – and to what extent that strategy depends on the cooperative relationship with the Egyptian military that we have maintained for decades,” Katulis says.

Caution toward decisions that could alter significantly the security of a critical region is understandable. But Katulis says the US also needs to consider what value a partner that chooses a confrontational domestic path and descends into chaos will be to US national security concerns.

“If the Egyptian military pursues a course that leads to disarray,” he says, “what becomes of their determination and their ability to deal with something like the terrorist groups that are profiting from the situation to expand their activities?”

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