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Analysis: Allies are few and critics are fierce as the Obama administration engages in increasingly desperate semantic acrobatics over Egypt.
ROCHESTER, NH — It hardly pays to be the head of the most powerful nation on Earth any more — just ask President Barack Obama, whose semantic tightrope-walking over Egypt is gaining him new and powerful critics, even within his own party.
His government has signaled it will carry on delivering F-16 jets and other assistance to Egypt even after the North African country’s military ousted elected President Mohamed Morsi following mass protest against the Islamist leader.
Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters call this a flat out military “coup.” The Obama administration does not.
“It's clear that the Egyptian people have spoken," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters when asked whether Washington still considered Morsi the legitimate president.
But that’s not what some US legislators are saying.
On Tuesday, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) joined the growing chorus of lawmakers calling for Washington to restrict aid to Egypt in the wake of last week’s ouster of Morsi.
Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, was not hesitant to use the “c” word in discussing Egypt.
“It’s certainly a takeover. It’s certainly the removal of office from a sitting president, democratically elected,” Feinstein said. “It is a form of a coup. If it walks like a duck … it is.”
On the face of it, the action undertaken by Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — arresting Morsi and much of the top echelon of the Brotherhood, suspending the constitution and dissolving parliament — would seem to meet the definition of a coup.
Washington's refusal to make that determination seems to convey an extraordinary bit of inductive reasoning. According to US law, non-humanitarian aid must be withdrawn from “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this act, a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.”
But according to White House spokesman Jay Carney, it is not in the best interests of the United States to suspend aid to Egypt at this time.
"We have had a long relationship with Egypt and the Egyptian people and it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program," Carney told reporters Tuesday.
If federal law requires suspension of aid in the event of a coup, but national interest requires continuation of aid, then a coup is simply out of the question.
Senators Feinstein and Levin were not the only ones to have difficulty with the White House’s pretzel logic.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been calling the Egyptian military’s intervention a coup since Sunday, and is reluctantly recommending that the White House suspend aid to Egypt.
Tea Party darling Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went further. With characteristic brio he blasted “neocons” earlier this week for backing a “military junta” in Egypt and called for an immediate cutoff of aid.
But a decision could have serious consequences for certain sectors of the US economy — namely, military contractors.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel, garnering about $1.5 billion yearly.
After the fall of longtime US ally Hosni Mubarak in 2011, US arms sales to Egypt slowed considerably. Defense contractors are eager to get back a share of the market, but right now military aid is the only game in town.
Since 2003, Washington has supplied Cairo with an abundance of hardware, including F-16 fighter jets, Abrams tanks, Hellfire missiles and Apache, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters.
This past January, four American-made F-16s arrived in Egypt.
The United States plans to deliver four more F-16s in the coming weeks, US defense officials said on Wednesday, regardless of the military-backed overthrow of the country’s elected president.
"There is no current change in the plan to deliver F-16s to the Egyptian military," one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Any suspension of US military aid could delay delivery of those F-16s, which would certainly be unwelcome news for prime contractor Lockheed Martin. Other firms that could be affected include Black Hawk maker Sikorsky, radar manufacturers and Abrams tank maker General Dynamics, and others.
On the Egyptian streets, it seems Washington can't win. Many anti-Morsi protesters blame the United States for supporting what they saw as an inept but increasingly authoritarian regime. Some of the deposed leader's supporters, however, accuse Washington of signing off on a coup that ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president.
The latter argument took on a new dimension when details emerged about the US government's communications with Egypt on the day the tanks rolled in.
Morsi’s top advisers were in touch with US Ambassador Anne W. Patterson and Obama's new security adviser, Susan Rice, as Washington pressed the Egyptian government to make concessions that might have prevented its demise, according to The New York Times. When Morsi refused, Rice said his time was up.
“Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour,” an aide texted an associate, playing on a sarcastic Egyptian expression for the country’s Western patron, “Mother America.”
But should the Obama administration decide to get more deeply involved in Egypt’s growing crisis, it will find little support among the American electorate. Wearied by long and ambiguous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public is in no mood for new adventures.
A new Rasmussen survey reports 73 percent of Americans want nothing to do with the crisis in Egypt.
It is a galling addition to a string of diplomatic setbacks for the Obama administration.
The White House has made little headway in Syria, where the president’s “red line” on chemical weapons was crossed a month ago. But Obama’s announcement of new aid to the Syrian rebels is being undermined by his own legislature.
In Afghanistan, the mercurial President Hamid Karzai is once again on the warpath, this time blaming Washington for imposing radicalism on his country during the jihad against the Soviet Union, “uprooting traditional Afghan values and culture and tolerance.”
The Obama administration has responded by circulating reports that it is considering a “zero option” on Afghanistan — a complete withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2014, something that should, and undoubtedly will, make the Afghan president nervous.
With longtime allies and client states spinning out of control, Washington’s dexterity on the diplomatic front is being drawn more and more into question.
As the drama continues to unfold in Cairo, the damage to US prestige looms almost as large as the danger to Egypt’s democracy.