If We Cut Aid to Egypt’s Military, Would We Die?

If you’re not following the debate about whether U.S. aid to Egypt’s military should be cut – as required by multiple, clear-cut U.S. laws – in the wake of the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s democratically elected president and the subsequent predictable massacres by the Egyptian military of people protesting the coup, you’re missing a great opportunity to learn about how U.S. foreign policy is typically made in the real world in the absence of significant public pressure, as opposed to the fairy-tale world in which “we have values, while other countries have interests.”

Some may say, “Well, I already knew that.” But every new U.S. war typically is accompanied by a media hysteria about how it’s an absolute emergency to bomb, invade or occupy Country X to prevent massacres or protect Country X’s women, children and minorities. And until the U.S. becomes a normal country that isn’t constantly running around bombing, invading and occupying other people’s countries, the lesson that Washington’s professed concern for human rights is, in the absence of public pressure, a smokescreen for other, less publicly marketable interests is one that can’t be repeated enough.

On August 16, 2013, The New York Times ran a news analysis about U.S. aid to Egypt’s military. Titled “Ties With Egypt Army Constrain Washington,” the article offers reasons why the Pentagon is reluctant for the U.S. to cut aid to Egypt’s military.

The first was this:

“Most nations, including many close allies of the United States, require up to a week’s notice before American warplanes are allowed to cross their territory. Not Egypt, which offers near-automatic approval for military overflights, to resupply the war effort in Afghanistan or to carry out counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, Southwest Asia or the Horn of Africa.

Losing that route could significantly increase flight times to the region.”

The second was this:

“American warships are also allowed to cut to the front of the line through the Suez Canal in times of crisis, even when oil tankers are stacked up like cars on an interstate highway at rush hour. Without Egypt’s cooperation, military missions could take days longer.”

The significance of the ease of military overflights is explained with an example:

“For decades the Egyptians have helped the American military in ways that are largely unknown to the American public, said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and an expert on the Egyptian military. Mr. Springborg noted that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – after the Turkish Parliament refused to allow the American military to use Turkish territory for crossing into Iraq from the north – Egypt gave the Pentagon immediate access for two aircraft battle groups and accompanying aircraft through the Suez Canal and across its territory.”

Surely no one would dispute that if you are the Pentagon, “near-automatic approval for military overflights” is probably something you really appreciate. Similarly, who wouldn’t want to cut to the front of the line at the Suez Canal? Raise your hand if you like standing in line. I’d “pay any price, bear any burden” to avoid standing in the security line at a busy airport or the line at passport control when you come home from a trip abroad. So I don’t begrudge the Pentagon its appreciation of its sweetheart deal for U.S. warships at Suez.

But suppose the U.S. cut off aid to Egypt’s military, as required by U.S. law. And suppose that in retaliation, the Egyptian military said to the Pentagon, “OK, big boy, from now on you have to give us the same notice for overflights as you give everybody else, and your warships have to wait in line at Suez just like all the other ships.” And suppose this continued until democracy was restored.

I can certainly see how that would be sad for the Pentagon. But from the point of view of everyone else in America who isn’t the Pentagon – everyone who has to stand in line all the time – would it be so terrible? Would we die? Could we somehow muddle through?

I haven’t noticed the Pentagon doing anything to keep me from having to stand in line. Why should I be willing to sacrifice anything that I care about – like preventing the Egyptian military from slaughtering protesters or ensuring that U.S. foreign policy complies with U.S. law – so that the Pentagon doesn’t have to stand in line?

Indeed, if the Pentagon had to stand in line along with everyone else, as someone who would strongly prefer it if my government were not constantly running around the world bombing, invading and occupying other people’s countries, might I be actually better off?

I opposed the Iraq war. Didn’t you? I remember when the Turkish parliament voted to block the U.S. military from using Turkish airspace to invade Iraq. I thought that was fantastic! Long live Turkish democracy! If the Egyptian Parliament had voted to block the use of Egyptian territory for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I would have been delighted. But of course there was little possibility that the Egyptian Parliament would have voted like that in 2003, because in 2003 the Egyptian parliament was not produced by a free and fair election. It was produced by an election rigged by the U.S.-backed Egyptian military’s handpicked “civilian” sock puppet, Hosni Mubarak.

That is, the Pentagon’s sweetheart deal in Egypt depended crucially on an absence of democracy in Egypt.

And thus, when it comes to democracy in Egypt, the Pentagon and the majority of Americans have fundamentally different interests.

And that is why U.S. policy in Egypt can be run according to the Pentagon’s narrow interests or according to the interests of the majority of Americans – but not both. It is being said that the U.S. has little influence in Egypt to stop the repression and restore democracy. But the more-precise statement is that the U.S. has little influence in Egypt to stop the repression and restore democracy so long as the Pentagon’s narrow interests remain paramount in the formation of U.S. policy. And as long as the Pentagon’s narrow interests remain paramount in the formation of U.S. policy, the Egyptian military can safely ignore U.S. statements about democracy and human rights, because U.S. priorities lie elsewhere.

When all of the U.S. government is pulling strongly together in one direction – when it’s trying to impose sanctions on Iran or hunt Edward Snowden or punish journalists critical of U.S. policy or prevent countries from breaking U.S. pharmaceutical patents to lower the price of lifesaving medicines – the power of the U.S. government is awesome. The key obstacles to the use of U.S. influence to stop the repression in Egypt lie in the internal contradictions of U.S. policy – the fact that when it comes to U.S. priorities, human rights and democracy have to move to the back of the bus, behind avoiding inconvenience to the Pentagon.

This is why the shah of Iran ignored U.S. warnings about democracy and human rights until it was too late: he correctly believed that U.S. priorities lay elsewhere, until it was too late.

And this is why it is urgent for U.S. policy in Egypt to change course. Because if the democratic path to contest for political power in Egypt is closed to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood decides to try to seize power by force, everything that has happened so far will seem like a walk in the park.

Now, suppose that we agree that it would be in the interests of the majority of Americans for the U.S. government to comply with U.S. laws and cut aid to the Egyptian military until the repression stops and democracy is restored. What should the public do, given that the Pentagon and its apologists seem determined otherwise?

Shouldn’t we call for cutting off U.S. aid to Egypt’s military, regardless of whether we think Washington will listen? Wouldn’t it be better to push for cutting off U.S. aid to Egypt’s military and lose – than to allow the idea to rule unchallenged that U.S. aid to those who commit massacres should continue because there’s a danger that the Pentagon might have to stand in line, like everybody else?

Shouldn’t we try to force the issue so that those who support doing nothing in the face of the repression – in clear violation of U.S. laws – have to defend their position in detail, on the record?

“But what about Israel?”

Some people will ask how you can go on and on about the Pentagon and not mention Israel.

Here The New York Times analysis helps again. The article does mention Israel. The first glancing mention is in the seventh paragraph. The first substantive mention is in the 15th paragraph.

Have you ever spent any time in New York City? I have. Lots. Did you notice how you never met anyone who would sacrifice a tsatske for the safety and security of people who live in Israel?

Yeah, I didn’t notice that either.

So, if the safety and security of people who live in Israel were a crucial part of the story here, do you think that The New York Times, when it clears its throat and adopts its “news analysis” voice, would leave that topic to paragraph 15?

Indeed, isn’t it more likely that the causation story here runs the other way? Rather than the Pentagon’s interests being determined by “protecting Israel,” isn’t the Israeli “Pentagon” interest in this case determined by its interests in protecting the U.S. Pentagon? Isn’t that a service the Israeli Pentagon provides to the U.S. Pentagon, allowing people to say, “I’m concerned about protecting Israel,” when they really mean, “I’m concerned about protecting the Pentagon’s narrow interests in this situation, at the expense of the public interest?” Like when they say, “Cutting the Pentagon budget would be bad for Israel,” don’t they mean, “Cutting the Pentagon budget might reduce my campaign donations from U.S. weapons manufacturers”? When the Pentagon budget was smaller, wasn’t Israel doing OK?

When the Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian elections, did it touch the Camp David treaty? Did it stop security cooperation with Israel?

Now, you can say, no, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t stop security cooperation with Israel. But the Egyptian military’s security cooperation with Israel is better, you could argue, when it doesn’t have to mess around with democracy.

But if that difference was small, where do the long-term interests of the majority of Israelis lie?

If you’re willing to allow that the majority of Americans have different interests in this situation than the Pentagon, might you be willing to consider the possibility that the Israeli Pentagon might have different interests in this situation than the majority of Israelis?

Don’t the long-term interests of the majority of Israelis lie with having normal relations with public opinion in the region? Would it be in the long-term interest of the majority of Israelis for their government to take the side of repression in Egypt, when it had “good enough” security cooperation with the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government? Shouldn’t we at least ask that question before assuming that the coup in Egypt and subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood were in the interests of the majority of Israelis?

Shouldn’t we try to force the issue? Shouldn’t supporters of inaction in the face of the coup and repression – in violation of U.S. law – be forced to explain themselves, in detail, on the record?