It is, on the whole, one of the sillier nostrums in the Great Nostral Encyclopedia: “If we’ve made everyone unhappy, we must be doing something right.” But this time, I buy it.
The recently-announced adjustment of American aid to Egypt seems to have left every member of the Commentariat dissatisfied. Let’s start with an ostensible ally of the Obama White House, that veteran Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who told the New York Times, “The administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid, but continuing other aid. By doing that, the message is muddled.”
Oddly, for a member of President Obama’s party, Sen. Leahy is not just being negative, but obtuse. The “message” seemed perfectly clear to any number of observers, like Democratic California Congressman Adam Schiff, who told his hometown paper, The Los Angeles Times he endorsed the aid suspension decision as “the correct one as a matter of law and policy. The military played a decisive role in the overthrow of a deeply flawed but democratically elected government, and its excessive use of force in recent weeks cannot be condoned,” Schiff said in a statement. “At the same time, our relationship with Egypt is an important one and the United States has a core national interest in a stable and democratic Egypt.”
Several others caught the Administration’s drift, but thought it worse than muddled. Take Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, perhaps the most quoted observer of the day. She told the NY Times, “This is not a signal to the generals to get their act together, it is an effort by the administration to say, ‘You did what you did, and we want to keep working with you, but there is some price to be paid for not listening to us.’ ”
Yes, exactly, but what’s not to like? For Wittes, it’s this: “At the end of day,” she added, “it is a pretty symbolic price.” As opposed to what? And besides, what’s “symbolic” about suspending somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million worth of military hardware. It’s real, and it’s not definitive. Which is the clear message the Obama team wants to send: “We’re unhappy, but we want to stay on board. Help us, by fixing a few things.”
Adel Iskandar, an Arab studies scholar who lectures at Georgetown University in Washington, told the McClatchy newspapers he was unhappy because he senses a clear message of form over substance. The United States, he said, doesn’t seem to be pushing for more than a vote, which in Egypt’s current anti-Brotherhood frenzy is likely to cement military rule and Islamist isolation. Using U.S. leverage to push for real democracy, he said, would mean the reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Well, another commentator, the Egyptian former constitutional court justice Tahani al-Gabali told the Wall Street Journal that’s just what today’s Washington message is: “The US is pressuring Egypt to allow the Muslim Brotherhood back into politics, and it won't work.”
My guess is, on this point, al-Gabali is wrong and Iskandar is right. Not that this makes the Georgetown lecturer happy. “This measure is for the American government to save its face in light of how frightening Egyptian security forces are beginning to look,” Iskandar said of the cuts. “It’s not even a slap on the wrist. It’s a frown.”
Why does Iskandar think it is America’s place to push for reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood? Isn’t publically “frowning” at the ongoing military campaign of disappearing, killing, imprisoning, and harassing the MB’s supporters and those in the Egyptian media who support neither the Brotherhood nor the crackdown, about as far as the US should go in trying to shape a future for Egypt that only Egyptians should decide?
Would Iskandar or Wittes be happier if President Obama called the coup “a coup,” and thereby legally committed himself to severing all aid until Egypt “restored democracy?” This would be truth triumphing over wisdom. Unfortunately, the American law which celebrates Congressional posturing would tie the President’s hands tighter than a rope of “red lines,” and thus, coup-decrying (accurate though it might be) ain’t gonna happen.
Instead what will happen is that delivery to the Egyptian military of “F-16s fighter jets, M1 Abrams tank kits, Harpoon missiles and other equipment will be temporarily stopped. But Hannah Allam of McClatchy points out, “the United States would continue supplying parts for military equipment, military training and education, and support for counterterrorism and border security programs for the volatile Sinai Peninsula. In addition, the U.S. will still fund programs for Egyptian civilians that focus on democracy-building, health and education, as well as the development of the country’s private sector.”
And when it comes to the suspended aid, the key concept is “temporary.”
"I think it will not make a big difference and this decision will be revised probably in three or four months,” the head of the Egyptian Liberal Social Democratic Party, Mohamed Abou El Ghar, told USA Today, “because both parties need each other."
So, here’s another guy for whom the message wasn’t muddled. Maybe he read the Washington Post, which reported “one senior official” saying as clearly as one could: “This is not meant to be permanent. This is meant to be continuously reviewed.”
So, let’s review the bidding: Some military aid is suspended. More important military aid, like spare parts to keep operational equipment in use, and “soft power” aid to help reform governance and society is not. And the “hold” is under “continuous review.”
And, one should note, the military hardware that won’t be delivered to Egypt, will be manufactured and paid for, so the US military suppliers who are at least co-equal to the Egyptians as beneficiaries of the whole aid scheme, will not miss a payment.
So, the US has “symbolically” said we don’t like the crackdown and want it modified, but it is also saying something more important: we want to see what comes next. Will the military try to re-cast a re-run of the Mubarak dictatorship, or will a new and better Constitution be offered to the Egyptian people that will return power to the people through an elected, democratic government? Will rule of law permit real religious as well as political freedom, including the option of non-religious secularism? Will a government, society and culture steeped in crippling corruption free itself to allow merit to make opportunities?
The choices are yours, Gen. Sisi. They belong to you, your chain of command, your political leadership and most of all, your people. The US government and the American people can only respond as your choices accord with our values. We hope you make us happy by making Egypt happy, by aligning a pragmatic government with the ideals so widely espoused during the globally-celebrated “Arab Spring.” Should that happen, in’shallah, the full flow of American military and non-military support will happily resume.
Meanwhile, as America agonizes, it should remember this: we’re talking about $1.3 Billion in US Aid. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already kicked in a reported $12 Billion. No wonder Egypt’s Foreign Minister is doing the Willie Sutton thing on his first trip abroad. He’s going to the Gulf, not to Washington. As the bank robber always said, “That’s where the money is.”
Still, America is, amazingly enough, the world’s most respected national voice, which is why our approval (and our aid money) still count for plenty. Which is why this week’s mixed, but dazzlingly clear message is the right one. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right for Baby Bear and me.