Conservatives Split Over Continuing U.S. Military Aid to Egypt

By Patrick Goodenough | August 21, 2013 | 4:37am EDT

Egyptian security forces try to keep angry crowds away from the al-Fatah mosque, where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood barricade themselves, in Ramses Square, downtown Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Tallal)

( – As administration officials mull a response to the turmoil in Egypt, conservative foreign policy experts and commentators remain divided over the question of U.S. aid and how to deal with the military following its takeover and the recent bloodshed.

Those who favor continuing aid cite the need to protect key U.S. regional interests, topped by a secure Suez Canal and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – interests more likely to be safeguarded by the Egyptian military than the Muslim Brotherhood administration it overthrew on July 3.

Closely linked to this is the view that the aid – more than $70 billion between 1948 and 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service – has afforded the U.S. crucial leverage with the leadership in Cairo, and will continue to do so.

Proponents of retaining the financial support include those who argue that while neither side of the Egyptian divide is close to ideal, the military and the interim government it installed are a better option than a return of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Politics in Egypt today is a zero-sum game: Either the military wins, or the Brotherhood does,” Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens wrote on Monday. “If the U.S. wants influence, it needs to hold its nose and take a side.”

Some experts who favor continued aid draw parallels with the Cold War, when the U.S. at times chose to side with distasteful regimes in a bid to counter communism.

“Look, this is an old issue – we faced this in the Cold War,” political commentator and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News. “On one side, we have an army coup, on the other side, a far-left government tending towards to totalitarianism. These are choices that we have to make. There are always, you know – the choice of the better of the two evils.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow John Bolton said there is no reason why the U.S. should push for Egyptian authorities to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process.

“After World War II, we struggled without qualms to keep Communist parties from prevailing in Western European elections; there is every reason to take the same role here,” he wrote in a column last week.

“What is happening in Egypt now is not pretty,” Bolton conceded. “We should take care that our efforts to improve things don’t make them worse, disrupting our larger regional and worldwide interests.”

Writing on Townhall, Hoover Institute senior fellow Thomas Sowell warned that conservatives calling for an end to U.S. aid to Egypt were “playing with fire.”

“Barack Obama’s Middle East interventions have replaced stable and neutral despots in Egypt and Libya with anti-Western despots and chaos. Such is the price of pursuing ideological mirages,” he said.

“After contributing to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and the disastrous aftermath of that, the Obama administration is now publicly lecturing Egyptian leaders, and trying to micro-manage them from thousands of miles away. And some conservatives are joining the Quixotic chorus, playing with fire.”

James Jay Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in a column that a “compelling case” to end aid could have been made during Morsi’s tenure, as he moved to Islamicize the country.

“But with Morsi out of the picture, Egypt now has a ‘do-over’ in its quest for freedom, peace and prosperity. America should support a second chance for Egyptians.”

Citing U.S. law stipulating that aid should end in the event of a military coup, Carafano said the administration should respect it and ask Congress for an extension of aid. Authorizing legislation should make the aid conditional on such steps as respecting the peace treaty with Israel, re-establishing civilian rule and safeguarding human rights.

What leverage?

Those arguing in favor of ending aid to Egypt point to the loss of life – more than 1,000 people killed in clashes between the security forces and Morsi supporters over the past week – and say it would be morally reprehensible to continue bankrolling the military under such circumstances.

Some on this side of the debate question whether the U.S. has any leverage with Egypt, given the fact the military ignored repeated appeals from Washington over the seven weeks since the coup.

“The Obama administration has ignored U.S. law requiring an aid cut-off after a coup because it wanted to preserve its ‘leverage,’” Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote Tuesday. “Unfortunately, Washington has consistently demonstrated its impotence in Cairo.”

“To subsidize Cairo today is to underwrite murder,” Bandow contended. “Washington’s best policy is to support neither side and leave this tragic conflict to the Egyptian people.”

In an earlier blog post, Bandow also took issue with the leverage argument.

“In Egypt, all those decades of ‘foreign assistance’ have achieved is to successively identify the U.S. with two army-backed dictators [Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak], an unpopular Islamist president [Morsi], and a brutal military regime [the current rulers]. Washington should say no more and leave Egypt’s tragic future to be decided by the Egyptians.”

The nonpartisan “Working Group on Egypt,” a group of scholars that includes some conservatives, called for a suspension of aid, saying failing to do so was “a strategic error” that “weakens U.S. credibility, after repeated calls by the U.S. administration for Egyptian authorities to avoid bloodshed have been disregarded.”

“The continuation of aid removes a source of meaningful international pressure that could help to forestall future atrocities and prevent further steps toward consolidation of an undemocratic system in Egypt.”


Both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies claim to be fighting for “democracy” – claims echoed by supporters of both sides.

The former say the Muslim Brotherhood government failed to meet democratic norms, abused power and tried to rig the system in its favor. (Secretary of State John Kerry in a much commented-on remark said that when the military took over on July 3, “in effect, they were restoring democracy.”)

The latter say President Mohammed Morsi was freely and fairly elected and his forced removal was clearly undemocratic. (The Council on American-Islamic Relations called those who manned protest camps in Cairo campaigning against the removal of Morsi “pro-democracy protesters.”)

Writing in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, University of Jordan politics professor and columnist Hassan Barari challenged both sides’ claims to be carrying the banner of democracy.

“Neither the Muslim Brothers nor the military has fought for democracy in the first place. The struggle has been for power,” he wrote.

“What has transpired over the course of the current Egyptian crisis is that the battle is not over democracy. In other words, the divide is not between forces favoring democracy and forces opposing democracies. All regional players see the Egyptian crisis from the perspective of what best serve their national interests.”

Barari said the U.S. administration, rather than debate which side is right and which is wrong, “should be looking for ways to defuse the volatile standoff in the country. This entails a more assertive American foreign policy instead of this wishy-washy and confused foreign policy.”

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