There are conservative critics of the administration’s approach to Egypt who favor cutting off aid to the military government, and there are those who want to retain it. But there is an interesting overlap, which points the way toward a resolution and a more constructive policy toward Egypt.

Egyptian protesters Egyptian protester (Mahmud Hams / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)

Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton writes:

It follows that cutting off U.S. assistance to Egypt now would be seriously mistaken, as would pressuring other donors to withhold financial assistance to rescue Egypt’s economy from the deepening morass that Mr. Morsi let it become.  Such cutbacks also would send exactly the wrong political message to the factions within Egypt, the Middle East more broadly, and America’s friends and
allies world-wide.

But he argues, “Congress should make a quick, technical statutory fix that allows U.S. aid to continue despite the coup.”

Elliott Abrams favors a suspension of aid, contending that this is what current law explicitly requires us to do:

Now, there are good coups and bad coups, coups we like and coups we don’t like. But it seems very clear that Morsi won the presidential election, and whatever point public opinion reached in Egypt he was removed by the Army—not by impeachment and not by a revolution. A “duly elected head of government” was “deposed by military coup or decree.” So the issue is whether to respect our law.

Look back at all those things we want for Egypt, and the answer should be obvious: We will do our friends in Egypt no good by teaching the lesson that for us as for them law is meaningless.

He stresses, however, that we will remain engaged in Egypt and should also “explain that we expect to maintain those relations, and work closely with them, and seek to resume aid as soon as their promised elections take place.”

I would argue for reasons having nothing to do with Egypt that Congress should proceed as described above. This president has become far too accustomed (on immigration, healthcare and now foreign policy) to simply disregarding the express conditions of U.S. law. That is intolerable and Congress should do its utmost to make certain, even if the president does not, that our government respects its own laws. That means in this case following existing law. But it doesn’t preclude then giving assurances, concretized in law, as to how we will proceed.

In other words, the U.S. should suspend aid temporarily with explicit language acknowledging the obvious — a coup has taken place and U.S. law requires that we must do so. But then Congress separately should lay out the conditions (to be certified by the president) for re-establishing at least part of our aid, some of which of which have been satisfied. These would include scheduling elections and forming a civil government. We could exercise additional leverage in requiring, for example, restraint in dealing with the deposed Morsi government.

We can thereafter lay out the sort of conditions that would lead to full resumption of aid or even additional assistance. These would include the items both Abrams and Bolton recognize as essential to a successful Egyptian government  — respect for minority rights, increased civil liberties and an independent judiciary.

As a matter of foreign policy, conditioning aid in a way that respects our own values and gives us leverage is how we should have been operating up until now. Had we done so — by having cut off or limited aid when those conditions were not met under either Hosni Mubarak or Morsi — we would have communicated to the Egyptian people where we stand and would have had some greater chance of influencing Egypt’s behavior. Maybe now is the time to put that into practice — and into law.