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Cut Aid to Egypt and US Workers Lose Jobs

August 22, 2013

Photo Credit: freestylee via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: freestylee via Compfight cc

A couple of weeks ago on the radio I listened to Senator John McCain and a couple of other lawmakers pontificate on the issue of whether or not to cut US aid to Egypt.

The question was, “is what happened in Egypt a coup–in which case we should cancel our aid to Egypt–or is this a revolution, in which case we should not cancel our aid to Egypt”

The same issue is now being raised on the left by Human Rights First and ANSWER Coalition with regard to the massacre of Morsi supporters by Egyptian security forces.  And news stories say that lawmakers are pressuring President Obama to cut part or all of our 1.5 billion in military aid, and/or our 250 million in humanitarian and development aid.

This debate is simplistic in the extreme–not that that should surprise anyone who follows politics here or anywhere else in the world. Much of political rhetoric is organized by cultural logics that are important to the speakers and hearers because they express particular understandings of how the world works, but they have only tenuous connection with realities.

The idea is simple: the US doesn’t support bad guys, so if this is a coup, and if these people are killing protesters (armed or not), then they are bad guys and we Don’t wanouter tax dollars supporting them. Moreover, if  we cut off the money, they’ll change their behavior to get us to start giving them money again.

I won’t take up the question of the coup here, other than to say that the Obama administration is right to be perplexed by how to classify the takeover. Of course it was a coup by almost any definition, but against a narrowly-elected president who was actively dismantling the little democratic gains Egypt had made (for example, he had declared himself to have the powers of the legislature (after it was dissolved by Judicial order), and then announced he was immune to judicial oversight)–and it was a coup that had broad public support.

But lets consider the question of aid.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid in the world (after Israel). We give them about $1.5 billion per year, all of which goes to the military. (We usually give additional variable amounts totaling  couple hundred million for humanitarian and development aid in addition)

If the Egyptian military offends us, by staging a coup and killing pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the logic goes, we should cut that aid until they get back in line.

But there are two solid reasons why the US probably should not, and probably will not, cut these funds to Egypt.

First, the amount the US gives Egypt is a paltry sum in comparison to the aid it receives from its oil-rich neighbors. Qatar has already given Egypt $8 billion since Mubarak’s downfall, and has pledged another $18 billion over the next five years, emphasizing this week that its aid was to Egypt, not to the Morsi regime, and would continue irregardless of the coup.

Turkey had offered over $2 billion in loans to the Morsi administration–not sure if that is still on the table.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates just committed $8 billion in cash to the new interim government.

A threat to cut our $1.5 billion has far less impact at a time when your rich neighbors are giving you. How embarrassing to use your most powerful diplomatic lever and have them just shrug.

Second, we give them their one and a half billion dollars with strings attached. We give them money to buy arms, but on the condition that they buy those arms from US arms manufacturers.

The money we give to the Egyptian military mostly doesn’t go to them. It goes to us, to US corporations like McDonnell-Douglas and Lockheed Martin. It pays the salaries of workers at US arms corporations who have contracts with these governemnts to deliver attack helicopters, tanks and airplanes and whatnot.

Cut the funds to Egypt and the US workers making those helicopters get laid off.

(According to reports, the Obama administration has stopped shipping arms to Egypt, which seems a more pragmatic step than halting the money)

The money also pays to assist our military operations in the world. We get free transit for US military planes through Egyptian airspace (which we use about 2000 times per year), and US warships get free and easy passage through the Suez Canal (which saves around 40 ships per year a 6000 mile trip around the Horn of Africa).

In spite of all this, the funds could get cut. Here’s why:

In a democratic system like that in the US, every foreign policy issue gets made with two audiences in mind. The manifest audience in this case is Egypt, who are supposed to get a powerful message that the US won’t tolerate this kind of behavior–and we’ve just dealt with why that’s unlikely to be effective.

But there is also a latent audience–the audience that registers on public opinion polls and ultimately represents the potential voters of the United States. This audience , underserved by the media and their own legislators (albeit mostly because they choose to be), usually have very simple, black-and-white understandings of these situations.

But pandering to this audience has significant potential payoffs in the political arena that can eclipse the value of actually making effective foreign policy based on understandings of the broader contexts in which events are working themselves out.

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