Cutting American Aid for Egypt’s Military Shortsighted

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, former chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, walk up the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, February 11, 2012
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, former chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, walk up the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, February 11, 2012 (Department of Defense/D. Myles Cullen)

Threatening to cut American aid for Egypt’s military after it deposed the Arab nation’s elected president on Wednesday could harm its interests in the region. If anything, the United States should expand their support for Egypt which is a key ally in maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Middle East.

America’s top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, suggested in an interview with CNN that was taped a day before the army removed Mohamed Morsi from office, “If this were to be seen as a coup, that would limit our ability to have the kind of relationship we think we need with the Egyptian armed forces.”

On Friday, after Morsi had been deposed, Republican senator John McCain, an advocate of American military support for “Arab Spring” uprisings, said the aid should be cut. “We cannot repeat the same mistakes that we made in other times of our history by supporting removal of freely elected governments,” he argued.

The United States quietly backed military coups in Asia and Latin America during the Cold War when leftist governments where replaced by rightist dictatorships. Similarly, it provided training and weapons to Egypt’s army after the country signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 despite its lack of democracy. America’s interests in Egypt — which include access to the Suez Canal and preserving it as an influence for stability and Sunni dominance in the Middle East to counter both radical Islamism and Shia Iran — clearly trumped its values. There’s no reason for that to change.

American law may prohibit the continuation of $1.3 billion in yearly aid for Egypt’s army if it has participated in a coup d’état; threatening to take it away would be counterproductive. As Adam Garfinkle argued in The American Interest on Thursday, rather than castigating Egypt’s generals, “We should be assuring them that we’re trying to put together an economic bailout to feed the people and help them put folks back to work.”

Despite previous loans from Libya and Qatar, Egypt is struggling to meet a financing gap “of perhaps $20 billion a year,” wrote David P. Goldman at PJ Media the same day. It is running short on food and fuel while foreign investment has dwindled and tourists largely stay away. The military might be able to alleviate Egyptians’ suffering when it is “able to count on the support of Saudi Arabia,” which abhors the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the United States. If the United States pulled their support, the transitional government, and by implication the army, would be ill pressed to maintain stability which could give rise to more radical forces like the Salafist al-Nour Party.

Egypt’s military doesn’t seek overt power — it never has — when it remains the ultimate source of authority in a country that lacks strong civil and political institutions to balance it. If the generals were formally in charge, they could be held accountable for the myriad of economic and financial problems the country faces which no government, civilian or military, is likely to resolve in the short term. Indeed, they were after Hosni Mubarak resigned in early 2011 and before Morsi was elected in June of last year. Nothing suggests they care to repeat that experience. The army would be more comfortable controlling events behind the façade of a transitional government, as the one currently led by the former chief justice Adli Mansour, or a newly-elected one. That suits the United States just fine.

Republican Lawmakers Divided Over Arming Syrian Rebels

Opposition lawmakers in the United States appeared unified on Sunday when chastising President Barack Obama for describing Syrian chemical weapons use as a “red line” only not to follow up. But they disagreed about what American policy in Syria should be instead.

John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who has long urged the Obama Administration to expand its support for Syria’s rebels beyond “nonlethal” aid, lamented on the Fox News Sunday television program that the president’s “red line” was “apparently written in disappearing ink.”

The president said earlier this week that he believes chemical weapons were used in Syria’s two-year old civil war but doesn’t know yet “how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”

“Unfortunately,” said McCain, “President Obama will not act and that’s a tragedy because the massacre goes on and the use of heavier and heavier weapons and more massacres are taking place of the Syrian people.”

McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election and lost, argued against deploying troops to Syria but suggested that the United States could “establish a safe zone” where civilians might be sheltered from the violence and “supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in.”

Arkansas congressman Tom Cotton, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, similarly said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the United States should arm the “reform-minded” opposition. “I think we also need to move toward imposing a no-fly zone,” he said, “so Bashar al-Assad cannot continue to use helicopter gunships against civilians.”

Cotton’s New York colleague Peter King, who chairs the House of Representatives’ homeland security committee, seemed more cautious in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union. He pointed out that religious fanatics “have a lot of control within the rebel movement.” If the United States arm Syrian opposition groups, they might end up “strengthening Al Qaeda,” the organization that carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or put it in a position to “take over this movement” once Assad is deposed.

In the absence of Western support, radical Islamist fighters have become the most effective in the Syrian opposition.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, American allies in the Middle East that seek to hasten Assad’s demise because he is the only Arab ally of their nemesis Iran, do appear to have provided weapons. The New York Times reported in October that most ended up in possession of the very jihadists the West abhors.

Republicans’ disagreement about Syrian policy reflects a broader debate within the party that has taken place and been left unresolved since the end of the George W. Bush Administration.

The second president Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after the 2001 terrorist attacks, considering both fronts in a global war on terror but also justifying especially the latter as a humanitarian intervention: to rid the country of a dictatorship.

National security hawks, or neoconservatives, like McCain still believe that the United States should use their military power to promote democracy and freedom abroad. He criticized the pullout from Iraq in 2011 and strongly supported American intervention in Libya that year when rebel forces were able to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi with Arab and Western air support.

On the other end of the spectrum are noninterventionists like Kentucky’s senator Rand Paul who argue that the United States have no special responsibility to protect other peoples from suppression and war.

His views seem more in line with those of the majority of Americans’ who have little enthusiasm anymore for overseas military adventurism after more than a decade of counterterrorism efforts, mostly in Muslim countries.

Only 10 percent of those surveyed in an online Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week agreed that the United States should become involved in the Syrian war. The number rose to 27 percent when asked if the country should intervene when Assad used chemical weapons.

Neoconservatives Belittle Foreign Policy Critique

Republican senator Rand Paul speaks in Louisville, Kentucky, October 30, 2010
Republican senator Rand Paul speaks in Louisville, Kentucky, October 30, 2010 (Gage Skidmore)

Neoconservative Republican lawmakers and news media this week sharply criticized Kentucky senator Rand Paul who filibustered President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. The exchange reveals a deep divide within the Republican Party about the future of its foreign policy.

Paul, who was elected with more than 55 percent of the votes in Kentucky in 2010, held up Brennan’s nomination out of concern that his CIA could use unmanned aerial vehicles to strike citizens on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder assured the senator that the administration had “no intention” of using such drone aircraft to target Americans at home. But hypothetically, Holder acknowledged that the president can use lethal force within United States territory to eliminate “enemy combatants,” even if they’re citizens.

The significance that libertarians like Paul attach to that nuance was evidently lost on several of his Republican colleagues who berated him for filibustering Brennan’s nomination.

“I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone,” South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham said on Thursday — although the likes of Paul weren’t members of the Senate during the previous administration when Graham was.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was the party’s presidential candidate in 2008, quoted from The Wall Street Journal which had editorialized earlier in the day that if Paul wanted to be taken seriously, “he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he’s talking about.”

If the criticisms of Paul’s filibuster reflect an establishment Republican disdain for his libertarian foreign policy, which is anathema to the interventionism of neoconservatives like McCain, former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint was right when he warned in January of last year that the party could split “if Republicans don’t figure out how to listen to and understand some of the things” that Ron Paul, Rand’s father and a congressman at the time, was saying.

“I don’t like the derogatory things some of the Republicans say about Ron Paul,” DeMint complained on Fox News’ Hannity. “The whole debate within the Republican Party needs to be between conservatives and libertarians.”

Although DeMint was talking about economic and fiscal policy, his argument holds true for foreign policy debate as well. Rand Paul, like his father did, laments the kneejerk reaction of many Republicans to advocate intervention whenever there is a crisis in the world. This neoconservatism has been discredited in the eyes of the majority of Americans who have little enthusiasm anymore for overseas military adventurism after more than a decade of war.

Lindsey Graham may be “disappointed that you no longer apparently think we’re at war,” as he put it on Thursday, while a minority of Republicans lawmakers and a majority of voters nationwide no longer wants to be at war. There’s a difference and when hawks like Graham and McCain and the editors of The Wall Street Journal refuse to recognize it, rather belittle the noninterventionism of libertarians as well as the “Old Right” or paleoconservatives, they make it nigh impossible for their party to develop a comprehensive foreign policy critique of the president that could redeem it to the electorate.

Republican McCain Urges Obama to “Lead” in Syria

Republican senator John McCain of Arizona appears on CBS News' Face the Nation, January 8
Republican senator John McCain of Arizona appears on CBS News’ Face the Nation, January 8 (AP/CBS/Chris Usher)

Arizona senator John McCain on Sunday urged President Barack Obama to “lead” in Syria where a ceasefire agreement was recently breached by forces loyal to the nation’s embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian rebels, according to McCain, are in an uneven fight.

In an appearance on the CBS News morning talk show Face the Nation, McCain argued that the United States should be at the forefront of an international effort to remove Assad from power. “Not lead from behind but lead from in front. They’re waiting for American leadership,” said the Republican senator who was Barack Obama’s rival for the presidency in 2008.

In Seoul last month, President Obama and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to provide “nonlethal” aid to the Syrian opposition. “That doesn’t do very well against tanks and artillery,” said McCain. “We need to get them supplies. We need to get them weapons.”

Other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, have endorsed the call for weapons supplies but Turkey and the United States are reluctant to intervene so overtly in the Syrian crisis over the objections of China and Russia. The two powers have blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions that deplored the violence in Syria and would have called on Assad to resign.

Referring to the ill-fated “reset” of bilateral relations with Moscow, McCain wondered, “How many times are we going to push that reset button?” before ignoring Russia’s concerns. “It’s time for the United States to lead.”

The septuagenarian legislator was previously a staunch proponent of military action in Libya where an alliance of Arab and Western states enforced a no-fly zone last year when its leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, like Assad, tried to squelch a popular uprising by force.

Syria is far more divided along ethnic and religious lines than Libya was however and because the geography is vastly different, an expedition could take longer and involve the United States in what is now a bloody civil war.

For these very reasons, America’s top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, cautioned against military support for the rebels in February. “I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point,” he told CNN.

McCain on Sunday drew the line at directly involving the American military. “No boots on the ground, no unilateral action,” he said. “But for the United States to sit by and watch this wanton massacre is a betrayal of everything that we stand for and believe in.”

American Senators Push for Engagement with India

Republican senators on Tuesday were critical of sustained American aid to Pakistan and called for a deeper engagement with India instead. Mark Kirk suggested “making India a military ally of the United States” and said he encouraged it “to fill the vacuum in Kabul once we leave.”

Lawmakers suspended $700 billion worth of financial support until Pakistan convinces them that it is providing all the help it can in battling the production and spread of improvised explosive devices in the region which target American troops operating in neighboring Afghanistan.

The opposition legislators responded to mounting public pressure to penalize Islamabad for its perceived lackluster effort in combatting militant Islamists in the region and sheltering terrorist leader Osama bin Laden who was found to be hiding in a Pakistani garrison town in May where he was killed by American special forces.

The United States have spent $20 billion in security and economic aid to Pakistan since 2001, much of it in the form of reimbursements for assistance in fighting militants.

Although Pakistan has lost more soldiers in the War on Terror than any other country, its intelligence services still maintain ties with mujahideen because it seeks “strategic debt” for Pakistan in Afghanistan in the event of an armed conflict with India.

The former chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress in September that the terrorist Haqqani network in particular, which is allied to the Taliban, “has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency.

Illinois senator Mark Kirk cited Haqqani when he argued that military aid to Pakistan is unsustainable. If the country choses “to embrace terror and back the Haqqani network,” he said, it should do so “without subsidies from the American taxpayer.”

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is leading proponent of intensifying the Afghan campaign in Congress, scolded Pakistan last month when he claimed that “the vast majority of the material used to make improvised explosive devices originates from two fertilizer factories in Pakistan.” Hence his insistence on Tuesday that Pakistan dismantle these plants if it is to continue to receive financial support from the United States.

McCain, who has favored strong American ties with India at least since his failed 2008 presidential campaign, reiterated his position on Tuesday that an Indo-American relationship could also check Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean region.

The administration has so far hesitated to deepen ties with India because it needs Pakistani support in the War on Terror. Many of the insurgents operating in Afghanistan maintain shelters in western Pakistan.

American drone attacks against suspected insurgent and terrorist targets in Pakistan’s frontier area are deeply unpopular there however because they sometimes incur civilian losses. What is more, years of anti-terrorist operations by a majority Punjabi army in the predominantly Pashtun territory has pushed the Muslim nation onto the brink of civil war. The army’s offensives in the northern and western tribal areas displaced nearly half a million people. Whereas the conflict used to be confined to the border, bombings and assassinations now regularly take place in Pakistan proper.

With the international coalition prepared to pull out of Afghanistan militarily in 2014, it makes little sense for the Pakistanis to continue to hunt down extremists who might prove an asset in the future. Indeed, the surest way for Pakistan to fill the power vacuum that is likely to result from an American withdrawal is to cultivate ties with the Taliban and its allies. If it doesn’t, there may be a place for India in whatever power constellation emerges across Pakistan’s porous western border three years from now.

Republican Hawks Critical of Tea Party Isolationism

Establishment Republican lawmakers worry that their party might pursue a neoisolationist foreign policy if the populist Tea Party movement continues to have an influence in American conservative politics.

National security hawks have also voiced dissatisfaction with the current top tier of Republican presidential candidates, all of whom advocate a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both of whom are perceived as moderate, pro-business candidates, agree that America’s heavy military presence in Afghanistan doesn’t serve its national interest anymore. Romney, who previously tried to secure the Republican nomination in 2008, believes that American troops “shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.” He and Huntsman were also skeptical of the Western intervention in Libya.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who continually raises the specter of militant Islamism, opposed arming the anti-government forces in Libya, warning, during a primary debate in New Hampshire this summer, “We have no idea what percent of the Libyan rebels are in fact Al Qaeda.”

Rick Perry, perhaps the most hawkish among Republican doves, is compared to former president George W. Bush but vows to refrain from the sort of “military adventurism” that characterized the neoconservative policy in the Middle East. During a televised debate with his fellow contenders in Tampa, Florida on Monday, he added that’s “it’s time to bring our young men and women home as soon, and obviously as safely, as we can” from Afghanistan.

“I’m disappointed that some people in our party are not embracing the concept that the outcome in Afghanistan will determine our national-security fate for decades to come,” Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Foreign Policy after the debate. An influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham was critical of the president’s plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan when he unveiled them this summer, fearing that it would “undercut a strategy that was working” and lead other NATO countries to retreat “at a faster pace now.”

Along with Arizona senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate against Barack Obama three years ago, Graham also said to be “deeply troubled” by the planned drawdown in Iraq where as few as 3,000 American soldiers could remain to train Iraqi security forces next year.

Graham and McCain both called for a bigger American role in the NATO mission in Libya where the alliance enforced a no-fly zone to protect civilians from repression after the regime there had deployed force against peaceful protesters in February. Few Republicans supported them in that effort.

McCain hasn’t singled out any of his party’s presidential hopefuls for criticism but does warn against the growing isolationism in the Republican ranks which he attributes to tough economic times. Both President Obama and former Utah governor Huntsman favor “nation building at home” rather than spending billions of dollars trying to erect a stable government in Kabul. McCain told ABC News in June that the United States “abandoned Afghanistan once and paid a very heavy price for it in the attacks of 9/11.”

Part of the Republicans’ newfound isolationism also stems from their role as an opposition party. Obama promised to end America’s involvement in Iraq altogether during his first term in office and while he is close to making good on that pledge, he escalated the conflict in Afghanistan with some 30,000 surge troops who will only start coming home during election year. Meanwhile, both wars are deeply unpopular

According to an ABC News/Washington Post opinion poll conducted over the summer, more than half of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said that the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from the country this year although the announced deadline for retreat is 2014.

Robert Gates, who resigned as defense secretary two months ago, in June urged skeptics of the war to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he said, along with many hundreds of lives lost. He later told CNN that “failure is a huge challenge for the United States” and could have “costs of its own that will linger with us for a longer time as was the case in Vietnam.”

The parallel with the Vietnam War is appropriate, he told Newsweek. “That is we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game. President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan — but eight years in.”

Besides a narrower, more nationalist foreign policy, the Tea Party champions fiscal austerity above all else and has helped shape the debate about deficit spending in Washington DC. Democrats and Republicans now agree on the need to cut expenditures although the former also want to raise taxes whereas the latter are wary of defense cuts.

If operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were to come to an end, total defense outlays would be reduced by roughly one fifth. The Pentagon would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on pay and benefits and housing for personnel as well as operations, maintenance and procurement.

Robert Gates identified some $400 billion worth of cuts in defense spending over the next ten years before he left office. He cautioned against “steep and unwise reductions in defense” if they were enacted because of “tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign” but deeper cuts could be ahead unless a bipartisan congressional committee agrees to at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending reductions by November.

As part of August’s agreement to raise the nation’s legal debt limit, members of both major parties must find common ground or $600 billion in defense spending is automatically cut.

The very national-security hawks who have criticized the Tea Party’s isolationist streak are already lined up for a fight over the military budget. “Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis,” Senator McCain said last month, “and if the Congress and the president act on that flawed assumption, they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable — the hollowing out of American military power and the loss of faith of our military members.”

The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee did agree to freeze defense spending at $630 billion for the next fiscal year which is $26 billion less than was requested by President Obama and nearly $20 billion less than was approved by the conservative majority in the House of Representatives.

US Defense Hawks Prepare for Budget Fight

Republican senator John McCain of Arizona ask a question during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010
Republican senator John McCain of Arizona ask a question during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

National security hawks in Congress are preparing for a protracted fight over military spending as the Defense Department could face up to $850 billion worth of reductions over the coming decade.

As part of a bipartisan budget agreement for raising the nation’s legal debt limit earlier this month, defense could be cut by up to $500 billion unless lawmakers from both political parties reach a compromise that reduces the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. Whatever military spending reductions are agreed to by a congressional “supercommittee” tasked with finding those cuts, they will come on top of some $350 billion in savings previously identified by defense secretary Robert Gates and enacted by Congress nearly two weeks ago.

Republican senator John McCain, who was Barack Obama’s rival for the presidency during the 2008 election, criticized the rising pressure to cut military spending without considering the impact on strategy. “Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis,” he has said, “and if the Congress and the president act on that flawed assumption, they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable — the hollowing out of American military power and the loss of faith of our military members.”

Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, who, like McCain, is a noted interventionist despite otherwise caucusing with the Democrats, similarly cautioned against deep defense cuts although he voted in favor of the $350 billion worth of reductions.

In a statement released after that vote, the Connecticut legislator said to be “very concerned about rumors that the debt agreement now being negotiated will disproportionately cut defense spending and result in unacceptably high risk to our national security.”

“By exposing critical defense programs to disproportionate cuts as part of the ‘trigger mechanism,’ there is a clear risk that key defense programs will be hollowed out,” former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton added.

Defense secretary Leon Panetta even forecast “doomsday” if the military were forced to cut close to $1 trillion, telling a press conference last Friday that it would “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation.” The $350 billion in reductions, by contrast, were described by Panetta as in line with what top military officials had expected.

Reining in defense spending has proven difficult as neither the incumbent administration nor conservatives in opposition want to jeopardize — or be perceived as jeopardizing — national security. Even in the worst case scenario of a total of $850 billion in cuts to future spending growth over the next decade, the Pentagon’s budget could continue to grow however.

Since September 11, 2001, military spending has increased by almost 7 percent a year, up from $291 billion ten years ago to almost $700 billion today. For 2012, the Defense Department has requested an appropriation of $671 billion including $118 billion to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in order for the military to execute its base budget plans over the next decade, it needs a total of $597 billion (or 11 percent) more than if funding was held at the 2011 level. Military spending would rise by almost $60 billion a year on average unless entire weapons programs were reconsidered or pay and benefits for servicemen and -women significantly reduced.