The Vanishing Case for U.S. Aid to Egypt

What do we really gain from subsidizing the country?

The United States has been providing aid to the Egyptian government for decades, and we have gotten a solid return on the investment. It has bought the U.S. government a lifetime supply of deaf ears.

In 2005, when the Bush administration questioned "Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law," President Hosni Mubarak paid no attention. This year, when Barack Obama urged President Mohammed Morsi to "reach out to the opposition and work through these issues in a political process," Morsi did just the opposite.

After the military removed Morsi and took control, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel phoned Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi 17 times to dissuade him from launching a brutal crackdown on protesters. Sissi's reply could not be heard over the barrage of gunfire that followed, killing hundreds of people.

Maybe the Egyptians have figured out they can do whatever they want without jeopardizing their pot of gold. Maybe $1.5 billion a year in economic and military assistance just doesn't buy much influence anymore. Or maybe the various rulers think they have to trample their opponents at any cost. But we might as well try to bribe an alligator into dancing a jig.

In this context, it may be wise to heed the wisdom of political philosopher Mae West, who said, "Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before." Since providing aid has failed, perhaps withholding it would be more effective.

It's hard to justify using our tax dollars to support a regime whose plan for achieving domestic concord is to slaughter its critics in the streets. We end up being blamed by both sides, for what we did and for what we didn't do. Our complicity makes enemies in a part of the world where we have a surplus already.

Advancing human rights and democracy can't be the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy. There are plenty of times when we are obligated to work with governments whose internal policies offend our principles.

But what do we really gain from subsidizing this one? Not influence: The Egyptians in power keep doing exactly the opposite of what we think serves our interests.

Apparently the generals have provided the U.S. with help in the war on terror, but guess what: They do that for their own purposes, not as a favor to us. Given our outsized military power, they have good reason to keep at it, aid or no aid.

Stability? This concern brings to mind what Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley said in response to criticism of police tactics during the 1968 Democratic convention: "The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

Our support hasn't stopped the successive regimes from taking measures that generate turmoil. Those actions will fuel radical Islamists around the world, some of whom will turn their anger on us.

With its ferocious crackdown, the government may wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood for good. But usually, indiscriminate brutality produces more enemies. One sure result will be to prod Islamists to become more extreme and violent, which could plunge the country into full-scale civil war.

Steven Simon, who worked on the National Security Council under Obama, argued in The New York Times that if we cut off aid, the administration "would be accused by all sides of undermining the country's security and meddling in its affairs." But all sides already accuse us of doing those things, and the more aid we furnish the more credible the charge.

Advocates of the status quo argue that if we stop the money flow, Cairo will turn to Saudi Arabia or Russia or various Gulf states. But considering how little we get for what we spend, does it really matter?

If those other countries saw much to gain from taking our place, they could have outbid us long ago. Taking on a bigger role, they may find the recipient to be a model of ingratitude, just as we did.

Nor is an end to U.S. aid likely to affect the longstanding peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Egypt, with all its other problems, needs a war with Israel like the Sahara needs more sand. Israel, for its part, is quite happy to see the generals back in power. The peace accords will survive without us.

Maybe ending aid to Cairo won't work any better than providing it. But at least we'll have a billion and a half reasons not to care.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Checkbook diplomacy is the only diplomacy we know. Take that away and what is Kerry going to do?

  • John Galt||

    Wind surf in his thong panties G-string banana hammock speedo?

  • sove739||

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  • Jon Lester||

    If only we'd done that when it was called for. We could have paid $100 to each and every man, woman and child in Afghanistan in 2001, and probably gotten what we wanted much sooner and cheaper than the course we chose.

  • Jon Lester||

    Maybe even just $20.

  • ||

    You know Steve, you chickenshit, it's hard to justify spending our tax dollars on any foreign government. Period. Cut the moral bullshit.

  • Almanian!||

    this

  • eyeroller||

    Yeah, the article implies that if the U.S. can successfully puppetize a foreign govt, it's all good. Yuck!

  • space junk||

    Agreed!

  • John Galt||

    If we want a world full of enemies it can easily be done without wasting trillions of dollars. While perhaps more difficult, it can be done for free.

  • Almanian!||

    I'm not sure it would even be "more difficult", and ^^this.

  • Almanian!||

    Yo, fuck foreign aid. Yeah, I know, "we're not going to balance our budget even if we eliminate all of it, and it's such a tiny portion blah blah blah I'm a dirty whore."

    Don't give a fuck. I get Realpolitik, and I also know where's it's gotten us...here. So let's just cut it all off. If there's occasionally some targeted aid we decided to send on a one-off basis (post earthquake Haiti, post-Tsunami Asia, something like that)....I realize it's a slippery slope, but that I could understand.

    This ongoing propping up of Israel, other Middle East countries, defense bases from South Kor to Germany to....? No. STOP IT.

    Also, fuck Egypt.

  • DJF||

    Getting rid of foreign aid also helps break up some of the spending deals that have developed in the US government. Support my foreign aid priority and I will support your bridge to nowhere.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    To see some of that in detail [pdf]:
    http://www.state.gov/documents.....208292.pdf
    Interesting that Micronesia recieved nearly a half a million $ in '12 (page 8). That's about their whole economy other than fish and coconuts. We own them - until the Chinese show up with some knockoff iphones.

  • ||

    Well if we're going to spend foreign aid anyways I favor buying up Pacific islands.

  • ||

    Also we have a compact of free association with Mircronesia so it is slightly different.

  • John Galt||

    Also, fuck 'em all.

  • Almanian!||

    +1 good modification

  • John||

    Can Reason please stop pretending that the "critics" of the military in Egypt are just like critics of the government here? The people the military is killing would be killing their enemies if they only had the power. There is a case to be made for not giving Egypt aid. But "they are picking on the poor Muslim Brotherhood" is not one of them. Fuck the Muslim Brotherhood. The military in Egypt is doing the entire world a favor exterminating them.

  • DJF||

    But its that same military and its supporters which has been in charge of Egypt since 1952 and they are the ones who have let the situation get to this point and I really doubt they have the ability to turn things around.

  • John||

    As bad as the military is, the Brotherhood is worse. The military at least kept the country from turning Islamist and kept it friendly for tourists, which is the country's only source of foreign currency and the only way it doesn't starve.

    It is not that the military is good. It is that the Islamists are the worst scum imaginable and them ever getting and staying in power would be a thousand times worse than anything the military has ever done. There are no good options.

  • ||

    I tend to agree. But that still doesn't persuade me to get involved.

    And that's the problem I have with Chapman (and with you on this issue, anyhow). You both simply can't accept that generally(*), getting involved is not in our best interests, regardless of the potential outcomes related to our non-involvement, considering that almost always those potential outcomes are regional in nature.

    (*) Yes, you can always Godwin this argument, and ultimately, I don't have a good answer for how far I'd have to be pushed before I stepped in.

  • John||

    I am not saying we should get involved. I am saying Chapman's reasons are ridiculous. So what if the military is nasty? Everyone over there is nasty.

    The problem with doing nothing is that it assumes that if we just walk away the world will forget about us and not blame us for what happens. That is profoundly naive. If the military stays in power, they will remember the US abandoning them and hate us for it. If the Islamists take over they will continue to hate the US as they always have and the people of Egypt will hate us for walking away and leaving them to their fate under the Islamists.

    Is that fair? No. But we are stuck living with the consequences and being blamed no matter what we do.

  • sarcasmic||

    Round 9/11 I worked with a guy from Egypt. Holy cow I've never met a more nationalistic person in my life. There was nothing that his country, military to be specific, could do wrong. He was a lot like you, only from a different country.

  • tarran||

    The problem with doing nothing is that it assumes that if we just walk away the world will forget about us and not blame us for what happens.

    John, do you really think that every conflict in the world is about the U.S.?

    In Turkey, when I was a kid, sure people blamed the U.S. for silly shit, kind of like some of the crazies I met in Florida who blamed everything on the Pope.

    But its a lazy sort of hate absent some reason to act on the hate, like seeing the U.S. president pledging his support for the local dictator, whose secret police are wielding very nice American made hardware.

    Again, you need to lose this silly assumption that every fight is about you. Keep inserting yourself into fights picking sides, and one day you will get a broken nose.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Countries in the middle east have been blaming their disfunction on 'The West' for centuries. No matter what we do, America will the focus of that hate until some other country supplants us the way that we did the British Empire after WWII.

  • ||

    But we are stuck living with the consequences and being blamed no matter what we do.

    I don't understand how this is supposed a good argument for more involvement rather than cutting our losses. As long as we're going to get blamed anyway, why not save ourselves the money, aggravation, and lives?

    "I already got a guilty conscience, might as well have the money too"

  • John||

    And those outcomes are regional in nature but that is a pretty important region. Do you really think all of the Middle East breaking into a Syria civil war would be a good thing for the US?

  • ||

    I'm not clear, beyond a bit of an economic disruption, how it would a bad thing to US National Security, when one defines that it terms of safety and not simply well being/wealth.

  • Floridian||

    I would step in as soon as they entered US waters.

  • tarran||

    Now, John, why is the Muslim Brotherhood so popular in Egypt?

    Is it

    a) most Egyptians want to be opressed and brutalized?
    b) the government is so vicious that the Islamic morality peddled by the MB seems like a better deal?

    The Egyptian state security forces have been known to arrest female relatives of subversives and rape them as a way of torturing their enemies.

    You may say that the girls have it coming for the crime of being related to someone who has a problem with looter-fascism. Personally, I view it as being dangerously silly as picking sides in the Bloods vs Crips fight.

    The military is evil. Period. The MB are evil. Period. Assisting any side in the fight is stupid.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Now, John, why is the Muslim Brotherhood so popular in Egypt?

    How about option C

    Large segments of Arab culture are fabulists, look back on imagined past glory, want nothing more than someone/thing to hate and see martyrdom as the ultimate achievement.

    And the muslim brotherhood, in oppostion, scratches that itch.

  • HenryC||

    The Muslim brotherhood is a minority, not a majority in Egypt. They took over the government with allies, who have since switched sides. They are likely the largest political group, but everyone else is against them

  • Gorilla tactics||

    you forgot to mention they invented algebra like a thousand years ago (which is bullshit but hey)

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Can Reason please stop pretending that the "critics" of the military in Egypt are just like critics of the government here? The people the military is killing would be killing their enemies if they only had the power.

    Yep, in an alternate universe Reason would be criticizing the Junkers for oppressing those poor Nazis, or the Czar for doing so to Lenin's misguided followers.

  • sarcasmic||

    Foreign Aid: Taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.

  • DJF||

    I prefer - Taking from the not politically connected in rich countries and giving to the politically connected in both the rich and poor countries

  • SugarFree||

    The wardoves at Slate are all for intervention.

    I used to think that, in the long run, when the memoirs are written and the minutes of the White House meetings are known, the 100,000 people who died in Syria would be one of the worst stains on this administration. Not because they failed to stop it, but because they failed to try. But I was wrong. One hundred thousand was the floor.

    Really? The worst stain on Obama is that he didn't get Americans killed intervening in a civil war in Syria and Egypt? That he hasn't so far is the only good things he's done.

  • tarran||

    Who says he hasn't intervened?

    Obama appears to be putting his thumb on the scale for the islamists in all those countries.

  • SugarFree||

    OK, militarily intervened, boots on the ground, no-fly zone, etc.

  • DarrenM||

    He still has time.

  • Free Society||

    An article full of stupid analogies attempting to be cute and quotes that have no particular merit, written in the style of a high school term paper. It must be a Steve Chapman article.

  • ||

    Although the entire article could be easily condensed into the 2-sentence conclusion, I have to give Chapman credit in that it's arguably the most coherent thing he's ever written:

    Maybe ending aid to Cairo won't work any better than providing it. But at least we'll have a billion and a half reasons not to care.

    Patently self-evident? Yes. But nevertheless a tidbit our betters in government seem to have overlooked.

  • Free Society||

    Nonetheless the title implies that there once was a legitimate purpose to aid in Egypt. And since this a guy who supports the highest drinking age in the world and believes the government should force banks to lower their lending standards, I'd say that's par for the course with Chapman.

  • ||

    Yeah, when I said it was the most coherent thing he's written it wasn't intended as high praise.

  • CatoTheElder||

    There's yet another downside to US aid: US content requirements.

    When Egyptian Islamists, democrats, and liberals get driven back by cops and soldiers, the tear gas cannisters, weapons, and vehicles bear the mark "Made in USA".

    This leaves the impression that the US is on the side of the oppressors.

  • GregMax||

    This silly passive nonsense about trashing the Egyptian military is mental masturbation. As I look around the world what I see is a growing expansion of population stress. Too many people not enough resources. Nothing our government "leaders" have done have addressed this basic issue. We regulate and export our productivity out of existence. Our discourse is focused on irrelevancies like "democracy" and "foreign aid" and other moral issues. Egypt is a country that is fertile grounds for extremists because there are too many dudes who have nothing productive to do. It's not your fault, my fault, the US governments fault, the Egyptian military' fault . . .
    Bad shit is coming and while 'Reason' argues about foreign aid and the political elites argue who the good guys are, in the end a lot of killing is gonna happen and the sooner we start getting that the better off we'll be. History REPEATS itself. Muslim extremists are like the Nazi's and fascist communists. Better to crush your enemies now rather than later when our entire society is full of feminists and collectivist bitches.

  • Jon Lester||

    I'm all for disengaging from the region and letting the Chinese fill the void, as they get most of the oil from the Persian Gulf, anyway, and have the money to pay for securing it, too. Better yet, they could not care less what everyone's religious differences are, and I don't think Israel would be any worse off if that's who they have to do business with.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Checkbook diplomacy is amoral and doesn't work. Gunboat diplomacy was amoral and DID work. We should revert.

    Best idea for a policy towards Egypt; Give it to the Copts. What with how they have been treated by every other faction over the last several hundred years, if we backed them militarily the results should be, at least, entertaining.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Fuck all distribution of taxpayers' wealth to other countries.

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    &my; neighbor's sister makes $65 every hour on the laptop. She has been fired for 8 months but last month her check was $20697 just working on the laptop for a few hours.

  • Alex the wolf||

    Regardless of the foreign aid issue, I think the best thing the USA could do is to set a free trade agreement with Egypt.

  • DarrenM||

    Oh, come on! It's onl' 1.5 billion dollars a year. Pocket change. /sarc

  • HenryC||

    There are two reasons for the 1.3 billion dollar aid, the Camp David Accords, and Nuclear Naval passage through the Suez canal. It abrogates the treaty between Israel and Egypt if we stop paying. The geographical advantages of the use of the canal are obvious. Whether either or both of these is worth 1.3 billion is open to questioning, but they are not negligible.

  • Anders||

    What too many people fail to understand is that that 'aid' is not a blank check.

    It is money we 'gift' them to buy US Manufactured weapons and components, or said weapons and components sold by US COMPANIES.

    It's like giving them a gift card that only works at General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Colt.

    It's buying good will the crony capitalist way. That money DOES NOT go into their general fund to be spent on things like education, food subsidies, housing, etc.

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