With F-16s, Obama signals no US challenge to Egypt coup

If Washington deemed Morsi's removal a coup, the US would be legally required to cut its estimated $1.3 billion in military aid.

Hussein Malla/AP
Supporters of the ousted Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, hold his portrait during a demonstration after the Iftar prayer, evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan, in Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday July 10, 2013.

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The Obama administration equivocated in its initial comments on last week's military coup in Egypt that removed President Mohamed Morsi from power. But the White House has made the US position much clearer with its announcement yesterday that it will deliver four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, despite the dubious legality of the ouster. 

If Washington declared Mr. Morsi's removal a coup, the US would be legally required to cut its estimated $1.3 billion in military aid to Cairo. White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday it would not be "in the best interests of the United States to make immediate changes to our assistance programs," the BBC reports. The Obama administration has carefully avoided using the word "coup."

The F-16 delivery is an installment of a previously arranged order of 20 planes. Eight have already been delivered, according to the BBC.

The US considers its military ties to Cairo – encapsulated in $40 billion in aid since 1948 and annual military exercises – as one of its most important relationships in the region. It is loathe to do anything to endanger that relationship, even if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) went ahead with the coup in defiance of US objections, The Wall Street Journal reports. 

In the days leading up to the military takeover on July 3, a set of Hagel-Sisi [US Defense secretary and Egypt's Armed Forces chief] phone calls showed the limits of U.S. influence over the Egyptian military. In the first call, in late June, Mr. Hagel gently cautioned Gen. Sisi against a coup, according to U.S. officials.

After Gen. Sisi publicly warned on July 1 that Egypt's military would intervene if Mr. Morsi failed to resolve the country's political crisis within 48 hours, Mr. Hagel was back on the phone with his counterpart.

This time, Mr. Hagel warned him more forcefully about the potential implications of a coup on the U.S.-Egypt relationship, including Washington's ability to continue to provide military aid, according to officials.

Gen. Sisi was noncommittal, leaving the Obama administration guessing about what the Egyptian military would do next. Gen. Sisi and other military officials told their American counterparts that they didn't want to intervene but would do what was necessary to restore order on the streets. U.S. officials expressed to the Egyptians that it was a mistake to set a deadline because "then, of course, you have to deliver."

US officials worry that the growing influence of the wealthy Gulf monarchies is eroding the importance of following US guidelines. While the US debated whether the ouster was a coup, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait pledged $12 billion in aid. That money comes with "few, if any, clear strings attached," as a senior US official noted to The Wall Street Journal. 

But Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chairman of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, says that the US decline in influence is a myth.

It has become fashionable in today’s “post-American world” milieu to argue that the United States had no ability to shape events in Egypt. This is absurd. The United States is far from being all-powerful, but neither is it powerless. Americans provide $1.5 billion a year in assistance to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military. It has leverage over the decisions of the IMF and influence with other international donors on whom Egypt’s economy depends. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt wields so much potential influence that Egyptians obsess daily over whom she is meeting, and they concoct wild conspiracies based on trivial events. The assumption in Egypt, as in much of the Arab world, is that nothing happens unless the United States wills it. The problem is not that the United States has no power but that the Obama administration has been either insufficiently interested or too cautious and afraid to use what power the United States has.

Mr. Kagan argues that the only way to correct the US mistake of not trying to head the coup off earlier is to cut aid now – completely.

So now that the military coup has occurred, how do we avoid the “seismic repercussions”? Any answer must begin with a complete suspension of all aid to Egypt, especially military aid, until there is a new democratic government, freely elected with the full participation of all parties and groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration then needs to work closely with other nations and the IMF to ensure that no loans or other forms of economic aid are provided to Egypt until democratic governance is restored. This approach runs contrary to the Obama administration’s instincts, which until now have been to work cooperatively with whoever holds power in Egypt and to avoid overt forms of pressure. 

But John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal that cutting off aid to Egypt would be a mistake, even if what happened was a coup. The democratically elected Brotherhood had stopped behaving in a democratic manner, he argues, making the law moot. 

Refraining from unnecessary public statements may be tactically wise now. But what are America's leaders doing behind the scenes as the future of the most populous and influential Arab nation hangs in the balance?

Many Americans, concerned that a "democratically elected" government has been ousted, argue that we should, as current law requires, terminate assistance to Egypt until another election takes place. This view is wrong on several counts.

Cutting off US assistance to Egypt now would be seriously mistaken, as would pressuring other donors to withhold financial assistance to rescue Egypt's economy from the deepening morass that Mr. Morsi let it become. Such cutbacks also would send exactly the wrong political message to the factions within Egypt, the Middle East more broadly, and America's friends and allies worldwide. Congress should make a quick, technical statutory fix that allows U.S. aid to continue despite the coup.

Egypt's military deserves the sign of US support that continued assistance would send, especially to counter the deleterious consequences in 2011 when President Hosni Mubarak came under public pressure and President Obama wavered in support, then ultimately tossed Mr. Mubarak aside. Everyone, whatever their politics, agrees that Egypt's economy needs massive assistance.

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