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Obama Drops the Ball in Egypt

It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

It would be wrong for Obama to simply blame Leahy for the failure of the United States to uphold its commitments. The White House actually has various tools at its disposal to legally maneuver around Leahy’s hold. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The Pentagon does have some budgetary discretion and flexibility, although it needs direction from the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Some more familiar with procedures on Capitol Hill than I am point out that the Apaches were procured and transfer funding was included in the FY 2009 funding package, and so OMB has some flexibility to reprogram that funding. If the question is merely funding for the transfer and Leahy won’t budge, perhaps it is worthwhile to see whether a third party could provide that resource: After all, many countries have a joint interest in denying safe-haven for al-Qaeda, even if the good senator from Vermont does not.

It does not seem, however, that Leahy is intractable. The administration has yet to actually fight Leahy. Given the chaos in Iraq and Syria, the necessity for Egypt to protect itself against terrorists based in the Sinai is clear. Unfortunately, once again, it seems the White House is letting the ball drop.


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