Obama cuts U.S. aid to Egypt, but why?

President Obama has decided to withhold a significant amount of military aid to Egypt. The primary focus will be on the shipment of a dozen AH-64D Apache helicopters that were part of an $820 million order back in 2009.

The U.S. will continue to provide spare parts for U.S. military equipment Egypt already has. And it will continue to support counterterrorism initiatives and security efforts in the Sinai, where Egypt and Israel are cooperating.

Obama never cut off aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, as Morsi tried to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. So it’s curious that Obama is now scaling back on aid to Egypt.

To be sure, U.S. law prohibits most aid to countries whose governments are overthrown in a military coup. Morsi was elected; the current regime came to power in what looked very much like a coup.

But the Obama administration has declined to find that there was a coup in Egypt. In any case, as I understand it, the administration’s significant but limited cutoff would not bring it into compliance with the law, assuming Morsi’s ouster was a coup.

So the cutoff isn’t driven by legal considerations.

This leaves two possible explanations. First, Obama is tilting towards the Muslim Brotherhood in its life and death struggle against the current Egyptian regime. Second, Obama is trying to incentivize the regime to be more democratic.

Frankly, I believe that Obama favors the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. His administration seems to consider it the wave of the future in the Middle East and perhaps wants it to be. Never mind that the Brotherhood is an anti-U.S., Israel-hating, Islamist organization with fascist tendencies.

But let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that the aid cutoff is based solely on a desire to induce Egypt’s military leadership to behave more democratically. Does Obama’s decision make sense on these terms?

As a general matter, I believe that the U.S. should encourage Egypt’s military leadership in the direction of democracy. Otherwise, it might well become the Mubarak regime without Mubarak. As such, it will go the way of that regime, and probably not before too long.

But cutting military aid at this time still seems like a very bad idea for several reasons. First, the regime is still in a serious struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent days, hundreds have been killed in violence sparked by the Brotherhood. The regime cannot be expected to become genteel in the context of such a struggle, nor should we want it to.

Yet the timing of the aid cutoff suggests that it was precisely the military’s response to the Brotherhood’s most recent protests that led to Obama’s decision to cut aid. Thus, the cutoff is more likely to alienate what should be a key U.S. ally than to induce it to alter its behavior. Meanwhile, of course, it is also likely to provide encouragement to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

This leads to the second problem with the aid reduction — it may induce the regime to look elsewhere for arms. Russia comes to mind, although Putin would have to reconcile a decision to aid Egypt with all of its other interests in the region. Thanks in part to Obama, Russia may now have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Middle Eastern countries over which to expand its influence.

This leads to the third problem — the impact of the aid reduction on other players in the region, particularly key Gulf States and Israel. These states are already dismayed by Obama’s feckless policy in Syria and the fact that he now is being “played” by the Iranian regime.

Topping this off with a punitive reduction of aid to a pro-American government that’s successfully fighting Islamists would destroy what little confidence our friends in the region still have in us. As Charles Krauthammer says, “If you’re an ally of the United States now, you’re wondering, ‘can we count on anything the Americans are going to do?’”

I fear that the answer, as long as Obama remains president, is “no.”

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