Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.
If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.
Obama has won hosannas from many Americans for refusing to stage air strikes on Syria and instead striking a deal with Bashar Assad to supposedly eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. He has won even more praise for his now-famous phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his willingness to strike a deal with Iran. But, whatever the merits of those policies (and, in defense of Obama, it must be said that it is possible that the deal with Assad could succeed and that, even if the Iranian deal doesn’t work out, it is one that any president would have to explore), they are not being greeted warmly in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Amman, and other American-allied capitals. Neither is the partial cutoff to the Egyptian military that will encompass only “nonessential” aid (e.g., F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters) while allowing crucial spare parts and counter-terrorism aid to flow.
America’s allies believe they are locked in an existential struggle with both Sunni and Shiite theocrats—al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, Hezbollah and the Quds Force on the other. They are in favor of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and in favor of bombing the Iranian nuclear program. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to adopt their policy preferences. But we need to be aware of them, and to be aware, moreover, that the dominant perception of the U.S. in the region is of a superpower in retreat–a superpower that refuses to uphold red lines and that wants to pursue diplomatic deals of dubious reliability as a cover for full-scale disengagement.
Unfortunately the partial Egypt military aid cutoff–part of an Obama tendency to split the difference on difficult foreign-policy decisions (remember the Afghan surge timeline?)—will only feed that narrative. On the merits, Obama’s decision is defensible; indeed, after initially opposing an aid cutoff, I reluctantly came around to supporting it. But now I’m having second thoughts. I’m afraid the consequence of announcing the aid pullback now is that it will reinforce the tendency of our allies to be a lot less willing to rely on us and to listen to us. They may well wind up taking actions that Washington argues against—in the case of Israel, bombing the Iranian nuclear program; in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have already provided billions in aid to the Egyptian military despite a lack of American support, pursuing their own nuclear programs; in the case of Iraq, Turkey, and Qatar, cozying up to Iran; and so on. A couple of commando raids in Libya and Somalia will not dispel the impression of an America in retreat; it may even reinforce that view by showing how the U.S. prefers to engage in hit-and-run raids rather than in deeper engagement.