CANCELING Egypt's military debts to the United States would be a decent and useful gesture. These are debts run up since the Camp David agreement, over the years in which the United States replaced the Soviet Union as Egypt's chief source of weapons. The Bush administration is asking Congress to forgive these loans because of the role that Egypt is playing in the Persian Gulf crisis. But it would set a notable precedent and raise a broader question: Why not forgive other debts owed to the United States government by other hard-pressed and struggling countries?
The Bush administration has not been encouraging that line of thought. It has been emphasizing the special circumstances of the Egyptian case -- the powerful leadership of the Arab alliance against Iraq and the help for American forces moving toward Saudi Arabia. As a practical matter, these Egyptian debts are unpayable. They come to $7.1 billion, owed by a country whose total foreign debts are now more than $50 billion and whose income per capita is about $700 a year (compared, for example, with almost $22,000 here.)
The Israelis, not unnaturally, have been the first to cite this precedent. They owe $4.6 billion in similar military debts, and while they are a great deal more prosperous than the Egyptians, they are also under great financial strain. The White House says in response that it will consider requests for forgiveness from countries other than Egypt.
That consideration should not be limited solely to military debts. Other countries have substantial debts to the United States government for civilian goods -- food, for example -- imported from this country. To make an important distinction, these are not debts to American banks or to American manufacturers, but to the government for transactions that have served important American political interests. If debts are to be forgiven, how about the debts owed by Poland, a country that is making a heroic effort to reorganize its impoverished economy?
Forgiving this kind of debt makes the United States a bit less rich on paper but has little effect on the realities of wealth and financial strength. Wiping it off the books relieves the debtors of a burden that is essentially political. It strengthens hope and support for economic reform. The Bush administration has been calling on the commercial banks to forgive some of their Third World debts. It's time for the government to do the same thing.