Doug Bandow on U.S.-Egypt relations and freedom

American foreign policy in the Middle East is burning right along with Egypt. How did it come to this? Photo: Egypt's ongoing turmoil may be the Obama Administration's biggest headache yet. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON, August 19, 2013 — Doug Bandow, CATO senior fellow and former special assistant to Ronald Reagan,  warns that the “near-to-mid-term future for Egypt looks ugly” and that continuing instability may inhibit reforms. 

Egypt’s turmoil and its polarizing effect on U.S. allies in the region is becoming one of the biggest headaches yet for the Obama Administration. As Congress presses Obama to cut ties to Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have already announced the financial support for the new Egyptian regime.

SEE RELATED: Egypt in flames: A perfect metaphor for U.S. foreign policy

Danny de Gracia: One of the things that has marked the last 30 years of U.S. foreign policymaking is a very heavy emphasis on the Middle East and Northern Africa. But, as you mentioned in a recent article, Washington spent $75 billion in assistance to Egypt over the years but has virtually no evidence of reforms or any sympathetic ears in Cairo. How did the taxpayers and Congress end up on the hook for this kind of policy?

Doug Bandow: The U.S. has obvious interests in the Middle East, including access to oil and the security of the state of Israel. Policymakers in Washington have come to believe their own propaganda, that they have the knowledge, foresight, and ability to remake other countries and regions to America’s advantage.

Foreign “aid” — which often has harmed the recipient nations, by underwriting statist economies and authoritarian governments — is the most common policy tool used by Washington. Once assistance begins it is easier to keep the money flowing than to step back and ask whether the transfers actually are achieving their professed objectives.

This is especially true in a case like Egypt, where such interests as arms manufacturers are the chief, though indirect, beneficiaries of U.S. foreign aid. They really are not concerned whether the programs advance American interests or not.

SEE RELATED: DE GRACIA: America needs new F-16s more than Egypt does

DDG: During the coup, one couldn’t help but notice all the American hardware the Egyptian military was using — Apache gunships, Abrams main battle tanks — all of these things are the same platforms the U.S. Army uses. It stirs quite a bit of cognitive dissonance that the Egyptians were using equipment we provided to engage in authoritarian, anti-democratic activities. What are your thoughts on this?

DB: Washington officials like to talk about democracy and human rights, but U.S. policy in the Middle East always has emphasized stability. Hence even George W. Bush, while often talking about democracy and justifying the invasion of Iraq as a means to expand freedom, did little to nothing to promote liberty in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Central Asian states. 

The public connections between American money and foreign governments usually are not terribly obvious, but since most U.S. aid for Egypt in recent years has gone to the military, America’s most significant contribution to that nation has been to strengthen the force that for six decades acted as the Praetorian Guard for a succession of dictators, and has aborted Egypt’s democratic experiment after barely a year. 

With the military gunning down demonstrators, the U.S. likely is seen by many people around the world as aiding and abetting murder.

DDG: It seems the ongoing Arab Spring is far too incendiary and wide-reaching for the United States to manage. What do you think Congress and President Obama should do as the region continues to go through upheaval?

Ongoing clashes and violent recriminations in Egypt raise moral dilemmas for U.S. policymakers. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

DB: It would be helpful if administration officials and legislators alike recognized the limits of U.S. influence. Absent direct military intervention, for which there currently is no public support, there often is little that Washington can do when another country faces crisis. 

Moreover, American policymakers should acknowledge the inherent and often irresolvable tension between the objectives of security/stability and democracy/liberty. It would be better to say nothing when nothing can be done and not to attempt to micromanage when the right result is unknowable or unreachable.

The Middle East is the first region where President George W. Bush should have implemented candidate George W. Bush’s promise of a more “humble” foreign policy.

DDG: Is Egypt “salvageable” — at least over the long term — as an ally of the United States?

DB: The near-to-mid-term future for Egypt looks ugly. Continuing violence and instability seem likely, which will inhibit political liberalization and economic reform. President Obama continues to refuse to follow U.S. law and cut off aid after a coup in an attempt to maintain nonexistent “leverage” and preserve a relationship with the new military government.

The regime’s brutality is going to make it harder for the administration not to at least suspend financial assistance. That inevitably will create tension in the relationship. However, the Egyptian generals have as much if not more at stake in the bilateral relationship as do U.S. officials. And Cairo would be the biggest loser in abandoning peace with Israel or relaxing control over the Sinai. Relations are likely to become more difficult, but are not likely to rupture.

DDG: It’s been suggested by some that the United States scale back its foreign aid to everyone, especially given the structural fiscal problems in our own country. Is this doable?

DB: More than a half century of experience with foreign aid demonstrates that economic assistance is almost a complete dud. Economic growth comes from market-oriented policies, and a domestic political commitment to market-oriented reforms cannot be purchased through foreign aid. To the contrary, by relieving some of the pain of economic failure, foreign “assistance” often turns into foreign hindrance.

Much political and military aid, like to Egypt, is essentially an ill-disguised bribe. Unfortunately, it tends to work only at the margin, since governments will focus on their survival irrespective of what other nations, even those giving aid, desire.

All these programs should be slashed or even abolished. There is a better case for humanitarian assistance, though even there problems also often arise. Private initiatives should be emphasized and government programs should be carefully structured to minimize the usual problems of the universal political imperative.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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