In Egypt, Obama Tests the Question: What Does Military Aid Buy America?

Buying leverage—or playing the fool?

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Steve Crisp / REUTERS

A view shows a flyby over protesters against ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 4, 2013

Barack Obama’s decision to reduce American military aid to Egypt puts a long-running debate to the test: What kind of influence does American cash buy among generals in militarized societies abroad—and is it worth the cost in dollars and to our reputation?

One side of the argument holds that generous military aid gives America leverage in countries that might otherwise ignore—or even oppose—America’s wishes. In Egypt, that means Gen. Abdel al-Sisi takes Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s phone calls and listens to his pleas for non-violence and political inclusion. The other side of this argument notes that Sisi has ignored those pleas, to the tune of hundreds dead and imprisoned—and that continued aid makes America look cynically indifferent to human rights and democracy.

The same dynamic applies in Pakistan. Since 2001, America has funneled tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan’s army, the country’s most powerful institution. But while Pakistan’s military has long assured Washington that it will crack down on Islamic militants within its borders and ease tensions with India, Islamabad is still notorious for playing a treacherous double game with the U.S.

The question has always been what would happen in those countries if America simply says, in effect, no soup for you. Will it enrage the generals and encourage them to pursue policies that the U.S. opposes? Or will it send those countries a stern message that they can’t milk American aid without accountability—and force them to take concrete action to win back our money?

Of course, it’s not always so simple. Cairo’s generals have maintained friendly ties with Israel—a crucial outgrowth of U.S. aid—and grant U.S. preferred access to the Suez Canal. As Steven Simon, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-United States, has noted, U.S. military aid “has always been intended to secure foreign policy outcomes, not domestic political arrangements that the United States favors.” And Pakistan has done much to help America fight al Qaeda, notably by allowing dozens of U.S. drone strikes on their soil.

To match a nuanced reality, Obama has offered a nuanced solution. Although the administration announced Wednesday that it will withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and equipment, like Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, it did not cut off Egypt entirely. “We have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government,” emphasized the administration’s official statement.

Still, Obama’s move is a clear punishment for Egypt’s military. It will be instructive now to see whether Sisi and company ease their crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood—or whether they act as though they didn’t need us anyway. That will clarify the debate about whether military aid, with the right strings attached, can buy America real leverage—or whether we’re just being taken advantage of.