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Aid to Egypt can retain limited US influence with the ruling generals

Commentary: As we descend into a world of waning US importance, what influence the US still retains is even more critical.
Egypt crisis latest 19 8 2013Enlarge
Egyptian soldiers take out barbed wire that was surrounding the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo ahead of planned demonstrations on August 18, 2013. (VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/AFP/Getty Images)

OWLS HEAD, Maine — The US Congress, led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, that dynamic duo of Republican foreign policy meddlers, is giving us another example of why it's held in such rock-bottom esteem. Their demand that we cut off our military aid to Egypt could help assure a bad situation gets worse.

As the earlier refusal of Egypt's coup leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to listen to repeated pleadings from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to avoid violence illustrates, US influence in Egypt is at a pretty low ebb.

If there's any good news, it's that the Middle East is no longer as important to US interests as it once was. The US is certainly not energy independent, but it's less dependent on outside sources of oil than at any time during the past three decades.

Without US assistance, Israel is quite strong enough to take on any combination of Arab armies, which aren't remotely interested in such a conflict. But if the Middle East is not quite the US focal point it once was, that doesn't mean it's irrelevant.

Events over the last two and a half years in Egypt — and as well in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq — are just the beginning of years of turmoil as Arab countries finally emerge from their colonial past. As American policymakers weigh various options, the focus has to be on the big picture over the long term.

The US has to hold firm when its few remaining Arab friends behave badly. Egypt's military has not just overthrown the country’s first legitimately elected leader, Mohamed Morsi; they've also killed hundreds of his followers, arrested the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, and divided the country into warring camps where civil unrest will only increase.

Both Morsi supporters and their secular opponents are increasingly anti-American, even as the US becomes a smaller player. US military aid to Egypt, at $1.3 billion, is barely 10 percent of what Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have promised the new government.

More from GlobalPost: Why Saudi Arabia loves the Egyptian military

And while the autocratic Saudi royal family imposes the strictest interpretation of Islam, its stability remains vital for US and Western interests.

A billion dollars doesn't buy countries the way it used to. But if the US takes the money away, it will be showing once again how little it learns from history.

In the 1990s, many of Pakistan's high-ranking military received training in the US. But in a pique over its development of nuclear weapons, Congress put an end to the military relationship. The US is now dealing with two generations of Pakistani military that have grown up without the positive benefit of direct involvement with US forces.

General Sisi and his cohorts are likely to be in power for some time. US ability to influence their behavior within Egypt may be low, but it's not negligible, even as the Muslim Brotherhood is pushed back underground. Cutting off aid may be emotionally satisfying to US leaders but it also will assure that the country has no influence at all.

Looking ahead, there are three key issues in the Middle East: the continuation of the peace between Israel and both Egypt and Syria; a resolution to Iran's nuclear ambitions without resort to war; and the necessity of defusing, to the extent possible, the growing Sunni-Shia split.

If Congress has its way, and the billion-plus US military aid to Egypt is taken off the table, the Saudis have made clear that they will make up the difference. In doing so, they will be directly thumbing their noses at the US. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, in a surprisingly direct reference to the US, issued a statement saying "the kingdom stands with Egypt and against all those who try to interfere with its domestic affairs."

Politics makes strange bedfellows; international politics, even stranger. As Saudi Arabia sides with the Egyptian military against the US, the US is sliding toward the almost unimaginable and certainly undesirable position of backing Turkey's Islamist government as they side with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, encouraging a Sunni split in the Arab world that will only increase the prospect for civil war in Egypt.

The US can best serve its interests, as well as those of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, by retaining a modicum of influence with Egypt's generals while simultaneously refusing to be backed into an anti-Saudi, anti-Egyptian corner.

What's as interesting as this strange split among Sunni Muslim countries is the equally unusual alliance in the US of conservatives and liberals. Many conservatives adapt a realist approach, siding with the Obama administration's more tolerant reaction to the Egyptian military coup — indeed, the administration has yet to identify is as a "coup" at all.

Liberals, while rightly repulsed at the bloodletting, have wrongly concluded that they must cut all aid to the perpetrators. Morally satisfying, no doubt, but strategically as shortsighted as their conservative friends' ideas.

The Middle East is too complex. The confrontations, whether between Sunni and Shiite, Islamists and secularists, or the Gulf Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood, will only worsen. A little influence, continuing access to what after all remains the pivotal Arab country, is better than none at all.

It's a paradox, but the world's only remaining superpower has decreasing influence in the world as a whole, and even less in the Middle East, even with its client state Israel.

But as we descend into a world of waning US importance, what influence the US still retains is even more critical. Throwing our hands up in frustration at the chaos in Egypt, and the bloodshed, is understandable. But it is not a long-term answer to the ever-growing crisis of an Arab world in the midst of a historic transition.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.
 

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