Even in the wake of the Libya debacle, there is no evidence that the Obama administration is undergoing any reevaluation of its policy — okay, it’s lack of a policy — toward the Arab Spring countries. It seems this crew is not very self-reflective, preferring to maintain a veneer of calm even in the face of warning signs that it is not business-as-usual in the region.
Egypt is a case in point. As former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams points out, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) is wisely calling for us to withhold aid to Egypt, for now. Abrams notes, “To begin with, Egypt’s ‘democratic trajectory’ under its new Muslim Brotherhood government is no sure thing. . . . Then there is the Morsi response when a mob attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Egypt is not Libya, where one can really question the ability of the police and military to keep order. The security forces in Egypt are strong enough, but were never told to act.”
Not only do we not have a firm handle on what sort of regime Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is setting up, but once we release the $450 million in aid, what influence do we have? At the very least, it seems a large portion of the aid should be deferred until such time as we spell out to Morsi what behavior we expect from a top aid recipient (defend our embassy, adhere to treaties) and what will chill the relationship and cut the purse strings (oppressing minorities, cozying up to Iran).
Moreover, Michael Totten has argued for an effort to distinguish between countries, depending on their conduct. He wrote, “Libya needs help, and it needs help right now. Libya should not only continue receiving the aid it’s already slated to get from Washington. Libya should also get Egypt’s.” He notes, “Spontaneous protests have erupted throughout the country, but not against the U.S. or a crackpot videographer out in Los Angeles. The Libyan protesters have stood squarely against the terrorists who killed [U.S. Ambassador] Christopher Stevens and against the militias that have been running amok since Moammar Gadhafi was lynched last year in Sirte.”
Well , that is a positive sign. In Libya, it is not a question of the government’s will but of its capacity to fight terrorists, and we should certainly evaluate not only how much aid but what sort would be useful (“Libyans could end up joining the Arab world’s anti-American mainstream. For now, though, they’re standing apart from all that. They need American help against the militias, and they’re worth the risk. The alternative is worse by far than anything we’re seeing in Cairo.”)
Why isn’t aid like a faucet? We increase the volume when it suits our interests, and we turn it in the other direction when it does not. Unless we keep a hand on the knob how do we expect to influence these regimes? Ah yes, President Obama thinks he can talk to these folks. Well, the Cairo speech at the onset of his administration reflects how badly he overestimated his own rhetorical influence and how little he understood what was brewing in the Middle East.
Mitt Romney, we keep hearing, has a foreign policy speech coming up. Perhaps he will show the farsightedness that the administration lacks. Call for a temporary freeze of aid. Reevaluate the regimes and how our money is being used. Describe what we should be communicating to the countries in the region that want good relations with the United States. And then be clear that we will adjust aid accordingly. This should be common sense, but right now it’s an alien notion in the Obama administration.