Since President Obama scrapped the U.S. military’s role in September’s Bright Star joint training exercise with the Egyptian military last Thursday because of the government’s killing of close to 1,000 protesters, attention has shifted to his refusal to cut off the $1.3 billion in military aid Washington gives to Cairo each year.
We’re not talking pocket change here. A June congressional assessment suggested that “U.S. military aid covers as much as 80% of the Defense Ministry’s weapons procurement costs.”
It’s probably fair to think of the continuing aid as an IV – but instead of an intravenous drip delivering life-saving medicine to an ailing patient, it’s closer to an influence vaccination designed to keep Egypt’s generals under some – increasingly limited – sway of the U.S. government.
But, as with all medicines, there are side effects.
“We’ve given them enough weapons to do all the shooting for themselves,” Ross Douhat writes in a Sunday’s New York Times column advocating an end to the American IV. “Which means our patronage has created a different kind of problem: Even absent an actual military footprint, we’ve been dragged permanently into Egypt’s domestic politics, where we’re seen — for understandable reasons as well as conspiratorial ones — as the real power behind whatever the state decides to do.”
The issue came up on the Sunday talk shows. “There are no good choices in Egypt,” Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs the intelligence committee, said on Fox News. “The fact is there’s no good guys there.” But the need for the U.S. to maintain influence in the Arab world’s most populous nation means “we certainly shouldn’t cut off all aid.”
U.S. military dollars grease the Pentagon’s own military operations: U.S. warplanes can fly through Egyptian air space (as some 2,000 did last year), and U.S. warships can move to the head of the line to transit Egypt’s Suez Canal, something it does 40 times annually (eliminating a two-week, 6,000-miles trek around Africa). Both have been critical U.S. time-and-money savers during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The annual funding rewards Egypt for signing the 1978 Camp David accords, championed by President Carter, signaling peace with Israel.
The Pentagon’s contract database contains 13,500 entries that include “Egypt,” which suggests how deeply Washington is involved in supplying the Egyptian military with some of its key weapons, including M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters. But Egypt has also been buying, with U.S. taxpayers’ help, AH-64 attack helicopters, Harpoon and SLAM missiles, and missile-firing coastal-patrol boats.
But the aid – and 17 importuning phone calls between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian defense minister and U.S.-trained officer – failed to still the Egyptian military’s swiftly-appointed rounds. Sisi and his comrades overthrew Mohamed Morsi on July 3, and believe the U.S. doesn’t take the Islamic threat to Egypt seriously enough.
There’s no doubt the U.S.-Egyptian military relationship is fraying. “The Department of Defense will continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt,” Hagel said last week, “but I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk.”
Sisi is free to ignore U.S. entreaties: the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have poured billions in aid to Egypt in recent years. But even those cash-rich sheikdoms have a ways to go before eclipsing the U.S. investment in Egypt: between 1948 and 2011, Washington sent Egypt a total of $73 billion, according to a recent accounting – including $1.3 billion in military aid annually since 1987 (as well as $45 million in International Military Education and Training — IMET — funds).
Much of that has gone to supplying the Egyptian army with General Dynamics M-1 tanks under a co-production deal that is now 25 years old. “Egypt plans to acquire a total of 1,200 tanks,” that June congressional report noted. “Under the terms of the program, a percentage of the tank’s components are manufactured in Egypt at a facility on the outskirts of Cairo and the remaining parts are produced in the United States and then shipped to Egypt for final assembly.”
Then, in 2009, the U.S. agreed to sell 20 Lockheed Martin F-16s to Egypt for $2.5 billion.
As if the free money weren’t enough, the U.S. also offers Egypt some defense-hardware sweeteners, the June Congressional Research Report notes:
— Since 2000, Egypt’s [U.S.-funded] Foreign Military Financing funds have been deposited in an interest-bearing account in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and have remained there until they are obligated.
— Most significantly, Egypt is allowed to set aside Foreign Military Financing funds for current-year payments only, rather than set aside the full amount needed to meet the full cost of multi-year purchases. Cash flow financing allows Egypt to negotiate major arms purchases with U.S. defense suppliers.
Last month, the U.S. delayed the delivery of four of those F-16 fighters to Egypt as an expression of its displeasure with the military takeover (but none in the Obama Administration dared call it what it was – a coup – because such a label would lead to an automatic cutoff of military support).
Obama took that action a week before the Pentagon’s Aug. 1 announcement that it was awarding contracts of up to $250 million to U.S. firms to work with the Pentagon’s Center for Civil-Military Relations.
“Based at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., the Center for Civil-Military Relations was originally established in 1994 to assist newly emerging democracies in addressing the civil-military challenges of the post-Cold War world,” the center’s website says. “In the nearly two decades since its founding, CCMR has evolved to partner with a much broader range of regions and countries.”
Unfortunately, Egypt was identified in the announcement as only a “potential” customer for the “training of foreign troops or education of officials.”