Spigots, tranches and answering a seemingly simple question on Egypt

August 20, 2013

One in an occasional series of observational pieces keyed off the White House daily briefing.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest delivers the daily press briefing. (Credit: The White House)
White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest delivers the daily press briefing. (Credit: The White House)

As the unrest in Egypt continues, reporters have been trying to get an answer to what appears to be a straightforward question: Is the U.S. cutting off military aid to the embattled country or not?

It turns out that even if that seems like a simple question, it isn't -- or getting a straightforward answer to it isn't. (Our colleague Anne Gearan explained why in a piece today.) The clearest indication of this conundrum came during Tuesday's White House briefing, when deputy press secretary Josh Earnest went several rounds with the press corps on the issue.

Consider this: Earnest invoked the analogy of a faucet eight times during his Tuesday briefing, each time to say that foreign aid did not flow like water through a faucet and hence, couldn't just be turned off. (He also mentioned "spigot" a couple of times, to make the same point.)

In an exchange with AP reporter Julie Pace, Earnest challenged Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) assertion that aid to Egypt has been temporarily cut off. Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, has been pushing for such a move for weeks.

After noting that a scheduled delivery of F-16s to Egypt had been delayed and that the joint military operation known as Bright Star had been cancelled, Earnest said: "So there have been some steps that this administration has taken, but it's important for you and your readers to understand that providing foreign assistance is not like a spigot. You don't turn it off and on or turn it up and down like a faucet. Assistance is provided episodically, that it's provided in specific tranches."

"I get that. I get that, but --" Pace replied.

"And so those tranches are under an ongoing review," Earnest responded, adding a few moments later: "The aid -- our aid and assistance relationship with Egypt is under a review, but it has not been cut off. A decision to cut off aid -- a decision to cut the aid would announced, if it were to be announced, after that review has been completed."

Under further questioning, Earnest returned to the faucet/spigot analogy, to emphasize that some smaller packages of military aid have continued to move forward even as some larger ones have not.

"Well, again, it's not like a -- this is not a faucet in which you just turn the spigot and assistance continues to flow. Assistance is provided episodically, assistance is provided in tranches, and that is -- that is the way that this works," Earnest said. "So this is not a matter of turning the -- turning the dial one way or the other. This is a matter of taking a close and careful look at the assistance that the United States provides to our partners in Egypt. And that evaluation is based on a few things. It's based on ensuring that we're in compliance with the law, it's based on an analysis of the national security interests of the United States of America. That's the focal point of every foreign policy decision that the president makes. It's certainly an important part of this calculation."

Another $500 million package of military assistance is due to be sent to Egypt by Sept. 30. So it may be a few more weeks before Americans get a sense of exactly how much aid is flowing--or moving, in some sort of fashion--to a nation that is both an important ally, and political headache, to the United States and its government.

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