The Obama administration’s announcement Wednesday that it will temporarily suspend some military assistance to Egypt comes too late to influence events on the ground and is only the latest example of its muddled and incoherent policy, say leading lawmakers and experts.
The State Department said Wednesday that after a lengthy review, President Obama has decided to halt delivery of several major weapons systems to the Egyptian military as a response to the government’s violence against civilians during the July overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and its continued suppression of press freedoms, extension of emergency laws restricting the freedom of assembly, and arrest and detention of senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, often without charges.
The U.S. will not deliver F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, M1A1 tanks, and Harpoon missiles, and will withhold $260 million of economic assistance to the Egyptian government, State Department officials told reporters. In a conference call with congressional staff, officials said $300 million of loan guarantees expected in fiscal 2014 also will be withheld. Military assistance related to counterterrorism, border security, maritime security, and military training, along with development assistance for programs aiding Egyptians on health, education, and governance will continue.
Leading lawmakers, including prominent Democrats, immediately criticized the administration for a policy they see as likely to sacrifice whatever limited influence the U.S. still has with the Egyptian government and military, while also not achieving the goal of convincing it to behave better.
“The administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid. By doing that, the message is muddled,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee. “If they want to continue aid to the Egyptian government, they should ask Congress for a waiver.”
Leahy said he wants all military aid suspended, but even lawmakers who say the aid should continue said Wednesday that the decision was not likely to advance U.S. interests or policy goals in Egypt.
“Pulling away now may undermine the ability of the United States to work with a critical partner,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), chairwoman of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee. “Egypt is going through a difficult transition, and while it does, the United States must preserve this partnership that has been so important to our national security, Israel’s security and the stability of the entire Middle East.”
The State Department determined in July that it has no responsibility to say whether it believes the Egyptian military’s takeover of the government constituted a coup, and the administration still has no intention of making that determination, allowing it to ignore a law that would mandate a full cutoff of aid for any government that came to power as the result of a coup.
“Haven’t made a determination, don’t think we need to make a determination,” one senior administration official said.
But the real concern on Capitol Hill and among the community of experts tracking events in Egypt is that the Obama team has been so twisted in knots about what to do in Egypt, trying to straddle the line between maintaining relationships and defending American values, that it may have sacrificed success on both fronts.
“They bungled the messaging all summer in a way that undermined the goal they are trying to achieve,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “By equivocating, hesitating, and not being straightforward to anyone, the Egyptians, Congress, the public, themselves, it’s been a jumbled mess. The lack of a clear, coherent message and strategy has resulted in them suspending things after the fact and missing opportunities to use aid as a lever of influence.”
Even the State Department’s public statement about the partial aid cutoff focused more on what aid was continuing rather than the real news, which is that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid is being suspended.
“As a result of the review directed by President Obama, we have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests,” said the statement from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Experts note that during the military takeover and immediately after, the administration often focused on the street protests calling for Morsi’s removal, while all threats of an aid cutoff were muted or equivocated in a way that may have convinced the Egyptian military that there would not be harsh consequences for its actions.
“If the administration had sent a clear message to the Egyptian military that certain steps would have resulted in certain actions, certain actions could have been prevented,” McInerney said. “They missed their opportunity to use the aid as leverage and now its late and reactive. They are responding after the fact, and that fits their pattern.”
On Capitol Hill, there is widespread frustration over the dearth of consultation with the legislative branch as the administration conducted its Egypt aid review. The administration conducted no briefings with congressional offices until Wednesday afternoon, several staffers from both parties said.
“The complete lack of consultation on this frustrates a lot of members, particularly a lot of members who are generally inclined to support the administration’s policies on the Hill,” said one senior Democratic congressional staffer.
Even after Wednesday’s conference call, congressional offices following the issue could not get answers to basic questions, including the metrics the administration will use to determine if and when to resume the suspended military aid. Some offices are considering holding up funding for other State Department priorities as a way of putting pressure on the administration to be more forthcoming.
“The staffs are looking at ways to express their deep frustration with the administration’s broken decision-making process, and we are also examining whether or not to place holds on other departmental priorities,” the staffer said.
Administration officials on Wednesday’s conference call with reporters acknowledged that as of now, the Egyptian military’s promises of putting Egypt on a path toward democratic governance and adherence to the rule of law have not been fulfilled.
“They are in many ways saying the right things,” one senior administration official said. “It’s important to us to see those things actually happen.”
But officials rejected the notion that the administration has not made its unhappiness with the Egyptian government clear. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the leader of the takeover.
“Holding up the deliveries of hundreds of millions of assistance, I think, is a pretty clear message,” another senior administration official said, acknowledging, “I don’t think anyone thinks there is going to be a direct line between our suspension of some military assistance to Egypt and an immediate change on the ground.”
Administration officials also acknowledged that they will need congressional support to implement their aid plan for Egypt.
“We’re going to have to work with Congress to make sure we have the correct authorizations to move forward with this process,” said another administration official.
Wednesday’s aid decision was criticized by other leading lawmakers, including Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who is seeking to continue all Egypt aid.
“During this fragile period, we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them,” Engel said in a statement Wednesday. “I am also frustrated that the administration has not adequately consulted with Congress regarding U.S. policy towards Egypt.”
The administration did win the support of two less likely allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
“After months of delay, I’m glad this administration is finally thinking about following the law,” Paul told The Daily Beast in a statement.