U.S. Pulls Out of Egypt’s Bright Star War Game

Cairo's brutality highlights U.S. fecklessness despite billions in military aid

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Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey

A U.S. Air Force C-17 arrives for the Bright Star military exercise in Egypt in 2009.

President Obama on Thursday cancelled the U.S. military’s participation in next month’s Operation Bright Star in Egypt – a biennial training exercise with the Egyptian military – following Cairo’s brutal crackdown on opponents that left more than 500 dead the day before.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing. “As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month.”

Following the slaughter of hundreds of supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi this week in cities across Egypt — by the same Egyptian military led by Army General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that overthrew him in a coup – the President had little choice.

“We don’t discuss any of the specifics of the strategies and the exercises that we have ongoing,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said July 31, when asked about the status of the next Bright Star exercise, which had been slated for mid-September. “We’re planning on going ahead with it.”

But that was before this week’s bloodshed.

Continuing the charade – that the U.S. needs to continue to cooperate with Egypt to improve things there – would have been bizarre.

“This exercise is an important part of U. S. Central Command’s theater engagement strategy,” the Pentagon routine says when discussing Bright Star’s importance. It “is designed to improve readiness and interoperability and strengthen the military and professional relationships among U.S., Egyptian and participating forces.”

But the U.S. currently has no clout among Cairo’s power brokers – the generals it has sought to woo for years — and pretending that it does by going ahead with Bright Star would only highlight American impotence.

The notion that such military cooperation can give the U.S. influence over a foreign military is dubious. The emperor, you might say, has no uniform — despite the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives to Egypt annually, a bounty for signing the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978.

Bright Star, also stemming from the peace pact, began in 1981, and generally has been held every two years. Thousands of U.S. and Egyptian troops, along with soldiers from several other nations, participate in war games and training exercises in locations around Egypt.

To assay its worth, it’s instructive to compare U.S. aid to Pakistan, which was cut off in the 1990s after Islamabad was caught developing nuclear weapons. U.S. military officials decried the lack of Pakistani officers in U.S. military schools, and said things would get better once aid, arms sales and military-to-military relations resumed.

They eventually began anew, but not much has changed. Pakistan remains perhaps the key stumbling block to U.S. success in next-door Afghanistan, not to mention serving as Osama bin Laden’s home for the last five years of his life.

The U.S. cancelled Bright Star in 2003 because of the demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama concluded it was also right to scrap it again, amid the war in Egypt.