Obama Cancels Joint Exercises with Egypt

by Jared Metzker and Jim Lobe

via IPS News

One day after the killing by the Egyptian army and security forces of hundreds of civilian protestors, U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday announced the cancellation of joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises scheduled for September.

Cancellation of the biannual Operation Bright Star marked the first concrete step taken by Obama to distance Washington from the Egyptian military since the latter ousted President Mohamed Morsi Jul. 3 and installed an interim government which it increasingly appears to dominate.

The move came, however, amidst growing calls from lawmakers and others to go much farther by immediately suspending 1.3 billion dollars Washington provides in military aid to Egypt each year, a step that the administration is considered by most experts unlikely to take unless Wednesday’s bloody crackdown continues in the coming days.

“(W)hile we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama declared in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he is currently vacationing with his family.

“As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise which was scheduled for next month,” he added.

“Going forward I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.”

With the official death toll from Wednesday’s violence climbing overnight to well over 600 and another 4,000 people injured, prospects for restoring stability to the country appear very uncertain.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose partisans were the principal victims of the bloodshed and whose leaders are reportedly being rounded up throughout the country, has vowed to continue demonstrating until Morsi is re-instated.

Virtually all analysts here agree that Washington’s influence over events and the key protagonists in Egypt appears extremely limited at the moment.

Efforts by top U.S. officials, including, notably, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, to persuade his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, not to evict pro-Morsi protestors and two Cairo encampments with lethal force were clearly unavailing. Similar efforts to convince top Brotherhood leaders to drop their demand that Morsi be re-instated also came to naught.

“There is no question this has highlighted the reduced significance and leverage the U.S. has with regard to Egypt,” Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at the University of Oklahoma, told IPS.

The suspension of military aid, he added, “seems to be the most extreme action the administration would take. If the levels of violence continue, it will be seriously considered, but if they diminish, I don’t think it will.”

Nonetheless, a number of influential lawmakers are calling for precisely such action.

“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the military should cease unless they restore democracy,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the key Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Thursday.

He was joined by Republican Sen. John McCain, who last week personally warned officials in Cairo that aid would be cut if the military carried through with its threat to use force in clearing two squares in Cairo that had been occupied by tens of thousands of pro-Morsi demonstrators since the coup.

Only two weeks ago, McCain had spoken in opposition to legislation mandating a cut-off of all aid to Egypt, arguing that it would reduce U.S. influence with the generals.

They were backed by the editorial boards of both the Washington Post and the New York Times which Thursday argued that until “the generals change their ways, …the United States should slam the door on an aid program that has provided the Egyptian military with a munificent 1.3 billion dollars a year for decades.”

The cancellation of Bright Star “falls short of what the circumstances on the ground merit, given the bloodshed and how many civilians have been killed,” Mona Yacoubian, an Egypt expert at the Stimson Centre, told IPS.

The administration, she added “should very strongly consider a suspension of aid until the situation improves.”

But a number of analysts believe the Egyptian military may be willing to forgo the aid in what it may believe is an existential struggle against the Brotherhood.

“[T]he military there are not concerned about American opinion,” wrote Col. Pat Lang (ret.), a former top Middle East analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on his blog, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” Thursday.

“They don’t think the money will be cut off for long. They have other sources of money. They are basically an internal security force and do not need the fancy gear that we have provided them. Abrams tanks, F-16s, etc. are too sophisticated for them to use effectively in actual combat.”

Those other sources of money include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait which together have pledged 12 billion dollars for Egypt since the coup – almost 10 times the total amount of U.S. military aid, most of which ends up, in any event, in the coffers of U.S. arms manufacturers which, along with the Gulf states and Israel, can be expected to lobby hard against any aid cut-off.

“The calculation of the Egyptian generals is right,” noted Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University in Ohio. “As the administration, what’s your ultimate play? You’re [not] going to break 35 years of a policy …whose essence is reliance on the Egyptian military.

“The Israelis, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis are saying, ‘Don’t cut those relations.’ Not only are they allies and friends, but they also buy an enormous amount of military hardware [from U.S. manufacturers],” he told IPS.

According to Shehata, “What the U.S. is concerned about, first and foremost, is the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. That is the lens through which the U.S. sees Egypt.

“Secondary to that is military co-operation: expedited passage of naval vessels through the Suez Canal, overflight through Egyptian airspace, intelligence sharing in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Of course, human rights concerns are there someplace, but, unfortunately, they are below these other concerns on the list of priorities.”

Indeed, in an op-ed published Thursday in the New York Daily News, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) noted precisely such considerations in arguing not only against cutting off aid but also against the administration’s appeals for a post-coup transition that would include, rather than repress, the Brotherhood.

“What Washington needs to do is clear. U.S. policy should be to support only Egyptian leaders unambiguously committed to Camp David [the Israeli-Egyptian treaty]…And we must assist those who place highest priority on repairing Egypt’s badly weakened economy and securing its international economic obligations, particularly safe transit through the Suez Canal.”

Even an aid cut-off which, according to Stacher, has become a real possibility, is unlikely to have the desired effect for the reasons cited by Lang.

“If you really want to get to the heart of the relationship, you have to attack the military-to-military exchanges – the training visits to the U.S., and the informal officer-to-officer relationships that take place outside the formal chain of command.

“As long as these informal officer-to-officer relationships exist, the generals won’t believe threats coming out of Washington as credible,” he said.

“Until these relationships are severed and the military-to-military relationship is formalised, any U.S. administration has wiggle room to look like it’s changing its policies without actually changing the essence of the relationship, which is U.S. reliance on the Egyptian military.”

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.