Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.
Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.
In recent days, even the sternest critics of Obama’s foreign policy have held their fire on Egypt because it seems the administration has started to understand that its infatuation with the Brotherhood was a mistake that was deeply resented by the Egyptian people as well as destructive to American interests in the region. Rather than use the violence in the streets as the Brotherhood attempted to regain power in Cairo as an excuse for pressuring the military to restore Morsi, the U.S. is wisely sending a muted message about the unrest. That should give the new government the space it needs to hold on and ensure the Islamists don’t get another chance to remake Egyptian society in their own image. And it’s also why it’s exactly the wrong moment for Congress to send it a message that would be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a U.S. gesture intended to push Egypt back into the arms of the Brotherhood.
Fortunately, Paul’s amendment was tabled by a vote of 86-13 with the vast majority of Republicans voting with the majority. But this minor incident illustrates everything that is wrong with Paul’s ideological mindset.
Paul claims he is neither an isolationist nor someone who doesn’t wish to engage with the world. But his vision of engagement with the world is not consistent with America’s global responsibilities. Like it or not, American support is a necessary element of stability in much of the world, but especially in the Middle East. Paul is right that Egyptians may have resented U.S. aid for decades because it benefited the military rather than ordinary people. He failed to mention that one other reason they didn’t like it was because it was seen as an ongoing bribe to ensure that Egypt abided by its peace treaty with Israel. That resentment was even greater during the year of Brotherhood rule since it was seen as propping up a new dictatorship that was not only oppressive but also bent on imposing its theocratic views on all Egyptians.
That’s why Paul’s attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the U.S.-Egypt relationship just at the moment when President Obama was doing the right thing was so foolish. America’s priority there must be to keep the Brotherhood out of power. But Paul, who is indifferent or hostile to the need for the United States to keep fighting Islamist terrorists throughout the Middle East, has no patience for such nuances.
Moreover, despite his half-hearted attempts to demonstrate that he is not an opponent of Israel this past year, he also dismissed the idea that torpedoing Egyptian aid damages the Jewish state. An aid cutoff is the last thing Israel wants since doing so would help the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension strengthen the position of its Hamas allies in Gaza, who have been isolated since the coup. It would also undermine the peace treaty with Egypt that remains a pillar of Israel’s defense strategy. Claiming, as Paul did on the Senate floor, that he has a better grasp of what’s good for Israel or what its supporters are thinking than Israel’s government or AIPAC was absurd.
This morning’s vote was a minor skirmish in what looks to be a long and difficult struggle in Congress to keep the isolationist wing of the GOP from becoming the party’s voice on foreign policy. For now, Paul’s effort to distance the U.S. from its global responsibilities has failed. But, as with the effort to shut down necessary intelligence gathering or drone strikes against terrorists, the fight is far from over.