American foreign aid has always been an awkward exercise in high-minded self-interest-humanitarian goals balanced uneasily with strategic calculations. Whenever these two come into conflict, Presidents inevitably find a way out of their loftier commitments. In 1947, when Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a huge reconstruction package for postwar Europe, initiating the modern era of foreign assistance, he told his audience at Harvard’s commencement, “Our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” But, when the Marshall Plan was enacted, the Times headline was forthright about its anti-Soviet purpose: “AID BILL IS SIGNED BY TRUMAN AS REPLY TO FOES OF LIBERTY.” The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which President Kennedy signed at the height of the Cold War, created the Agency for International Development and placed restrictions on foreign military funding. In 1974, Congress amended the act, and required the United States to reduce or end military aid to regimes with poor human-rights records, “except in extraordinary circumstances.”
In the interests of national security, such provisions have been flouted by Presidents ever since their enactment. After a military coup overthrew an elected government in Chile in 1973, with the connivance of the C.I.A., President Nixon continued assistance to the Pinochet regime. Even Jimmy Carter, who tried to put human rights at the heart of his foreign policy, granted himself “extraordinary circumstances” waivers so that aid could continue flowing to sordid but strategically important regimes in Iran, Zaire, and other countries. In 1986, Congress imposed a painful contortion on future Presidents with an appropriations bill that stated unequivocally that “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” But after 9/11 President Bush found a way to resume assistance to Pakistan, even though its President, Pervez Musharraf, had taken power by overthrowing an elected government. And, when Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak cracked down on pro-democracy activists in 2006, the Bush “freedom agenda” was quietly revised to keep the pipeline of aid open to a key Middle Eastern ally.
This history of double standards shadows the recent events in Egypt and Washington. When a country’s military sends tanks into the streets, deposes an elected President, suspends the constitution, shuts down television stations, and arrests the leadership of the ruling party, the usual word for it is “coup.” But, in the days since all this came to pass in Egypt, the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to avoid calling it by its rightful name-Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said that the events of July 3rd and afterward were under “review”-for the obvious reason that, under the law, it would mean the end of $1.5 billion in U.S. military and economic aid.
Hypocrisy can be an essential tool of foreign policy, but it works best when there is a policy to justify it-otherwise, it can seem randomly cynical. At the moment, the U.S. has no policy toward Egypt. In the two and a half years since the popular protests that overthrew the Mubarak regime, the Administration has followed a pattern: express concern about tumultuous events, then accept their outcome as a fait accompli and make the best of the new status quo, without a perceptible effort to use whatever influence the U.S. still has over the main actors in Egypt’s political drama.
The President’s critics wildly overstate that influence. Qatar underwrote the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi with eight billion dollars, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait immediately promised twelve billion dollars to the interim regime. Even American money no longer buys what it used to. As for American prestige in Egypt, it has declined under Obama from the dismal level of the Bush years, with the anti-Morsi crowds convinced that the U.S. and its Ambassador, Anne Patterson, were conspiring to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and the Islamists equally convinced that the Americans had conspired to throw Morsi out. The advent of political freedoms has not helped America’s cause in the country where, four years ago, President Obama promised a new era of understanding.
It’s easy to fault the White House for passivity and confusion, but no one has come up with a plausible policy in the face of the Middle East’s day-to-day upheavals, its shifting alliances and growing fissures. Some American neo-conservatives and congressional Democrats and Republicans have called on the President to denounce the coup, eliminate aid, and demand the restoration of elected government. This position has the advantage of being consistent with America’s stated principles, as well as with its laws. (It also joins together two of the Middle East’s strangest bedfellows: pro-Israel hawks and the Muslim Brotherhood.) But the loss of American hardware might reduce the Egyptian military’s ability to control jihadis in the ungoverned Sinai desert, while the diplomatic rebuke could profoundly alienate secular-minded Egyptians. The U.S. would appear less hypocritical, and also less relevant than ever.
But the “realist” position-the view that Washington should use whatever tools available to pursue its vital interests-is hardly more helpful. If those interests include the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the fight against jihadism, and that old chestnut “stability,” it isn’t at all clear how the coup advances any of these. Morsi basically kept Egypt’s foreign policy in place; the Muslim Brotherhood had its eyes on the prize of domestic transformation. The violent elimination of the Brotherhood from Egyptian politics could easily spawn a new generation of extremists who regard democracy as a Western trap, and un-Islamic. (Some analysts see the Salafist al-Nour Party as the real winner in the events of the past two weeks.) In 1992, the Algerian Army cancelled elections that would have put Islamists in power, and the country was engulfed in a decade-long civil war. Egypt isn’t likely to descend to that level of violence, but the coup will surely be a boon to Al Qaeda’s sympathizers, and create new ones.
The core political problem in Egypt is one that almost always arises from years of dictatorship: a culture of suspicion and confrontation, a mentality of winner-take-all. Islamists and secular-minded Egyptians regard one another as obstacles to power, not as legitimate players in a complex game that requires inclusion and consensus. Versions of this mutual negation can be seen across the region, from the liberal mini-uprising in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to the brutality of Syria’s sectarian civil war. The fractures are deepened by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are competing for checkbook influence. In Syria, both are strengthening the ultraconservative Sunni rebels; in Egypt, Qatar backed the Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia is supporting the secular forces (another perverse alliance). But neither country has any interest in an inclusive outcome. They both see a zero-sum game: Sunni vs. Shiite, Arab vs. Persian. Ultimately, they want to preserve and advance their own profoundly undemocratic regimes. America has no stake in these fights.
The street protests that began the Arab Spring have become destructive means for each side to assert its own primacy on the national stage. Nothing good will come of the overthrow of Morsi’s bad government if Egypt’s next transition doesn’t find a place for all of the country’s legitimate factions. America may no longer have the leverage to insure an outcome favorable to its interests or its values, but it should use its remaining influence to help Egypt’s factions move past their own zero-sum game. ?