The current crisis in Egypt and the inability of the United States to formulate a policy and to have any influence in Cairo marks another setback for U.S. foreign policy, which relies too heavily on military assistance. Too many pundits and analysts believe that U.S. military aid to Egypt, which amounts to $1.3 billion annually, is a source of leverage in the Egyptian domestic crisis. Well, it isn’t…and the same could be said for the lack of U.S. influence, let alone leverage, with any of the top recipients of U.S. military assistance.
The top six recipients of U.S. military aid (Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey) provide very little return on our investment. Israel has overwhelming military dominance in the Middle East and doesn’t require military aid. In fact, the United States is constantly and deliberately embarrassed by the Israeli government despite the huge amounts of military assistance that Israel has received over past decades.
Egypt has received more than $60 billion in military and economic aid over the past three decades with no indication that Egyptian policy was susceptible to U.S. influence. Cairo doesn’t violate its peace treaty with Israel because of U.S. assistance; it adheres to the treaty because it is in Egypt’s interest to do so. Pentagon officials believe that close ties between U.S. and Egyptian armed forces helped the Egyptian military council become a force for social cohesion rather than repression. A retired commandant of the U.S. Army War College, Major General Robert Scales, has argued that “they learn our way of war…but they also learn our philosophies of civil-military relations.” If only this were true.
The most futile example of U.S. military aid programs is the case of Pakistan. The Bush and Obama administrations have sent billions of dollars in aid to Islamabad, but Pakistan has never stopped its double dealing on pledges to fight the Afghan Taliban. At the same time, the United States has never
used its assistance to promote democracy in Pakistan. The U.S. military presence in Pakistan, including its efforts at so-called assistance, merely contribute to militant anti-Americanism.
Military assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan does not contribute to U.S. goals and objectives in the region. No sooner had U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq than the Obama administration announced multibillion-dollar arms sales to Iraq, including advanced fighter aircraft, tanks, and helicopters. This deal was announced as the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki worked to consolidate his authority, create a one-party Shiite-dominated state, and abandon the U.S.-backed power-sharing arrangement. Meanwhile, Iraq has improved its bilateral relations with Iran, raising the prospect that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf could encounter U.S. weaponry in a future conflict.
With the United States winding down its combat role in Afghanistan, the government of Hamid Karzai is already demanding $4 billion annually for its military and policy forces over the next decade. Afghanistan is unable to use effectively the assistance that it receives, and thus far has been unable to create a military force that can counter the Taliban threat. The surge in recent years in incidents of Afghan soldiers killing U.S. and European military personnel, and the increased corruption in Afghanistan that is fueled by U.S. dollars argue for very limited assistance.
Turkey is the sole case where huge amounts of military assistance provide some influence in getting Turkish support for U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East. But the recent violence in Istanbul’s Taksim Square could one day match the combustion in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan–Turkey’s most important leader since Ataturk–doesn’t appear receptive to demands for a genuine, pluralistic democracy. For the first time since he came to power, Erdogan appears politically vulnerable. At this particular time, Turkey needs more genuine political debate, not U.S. military assistance.
The United States gives military assistance to numerous countries that do not need it or do not deserve it because of serious human rights violations. The recent sale of $30 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia was ill-timed because it is more likely that such aid would be used to suppress demonstrations for reform in Bahrain than in any other scenario. Eastern European countries need economic and political stability, not modern military technology. Indonesia, a country with numerous human rights violations, receives $20 million annually in military aid.
While the Obama administration was conducting a feckless debate over whether a military coup had taken place in Cairo, the Egyptian military rapidly emerged as the dominant political force in the country. It is also the richest (and most corrupt) institution in the country, and hardly needs U.S. largesse. There is no external security threat to Egypt that requires the huge weapons platforms that its military forces demand. The United States was slow to criticize the authoritarian actions of former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, and we still have no strategy for fostering political and economic reform in Cairo.
At the very least, the Obama administration needs to call a coup a coup, and begin to suspend military assistance to the interim Egyptian government. U.S. policy should be based on getting Egypt to establish a coalition government and to begin a consensus-based transition process. Cutting future military aid to Egypt would give the United States an opportunity to reduce military assistance to Israel as well. Such measures would send a necessary signal to U.S. allies and clients that military aid will not dominate the implementation of U.S. foreign policy.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He is the author of the recently published National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers)and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: The Story of a CIA Whistleblower” (City Lights Publisher). Goodman is a former CIA analyst and a professor of international relations at the National War College.