The United States and Egypt, Post Coup

President Obama’s statement regarding Egypt was decent, as such things go, but reveals the very limited influence that the United States has, and can have, over what transpires inside of that country–or any other, for that matter. American politicians seem incapable of admitting such things, and Obama went about as far as I’ve heard recently.

It is too convenient for the president’s critics to accuse him of failing to halt the violence, just as they blamed him for not preventing the coup, or, before that, of not (somehow) preventing the election of Mohamed Morsi. President McCain or Romney likely would have heard the same thing. Whenever anything bad happens, anywhere in the world, Uncle Sam gets blamed, including by people who want Uncle Sam to do more. The presumption among that group is that more effort, more speeches, more intervention, would have worked, or will work in the future. I’m generally skeptical that that is true, and I’m especially skeptical in this instance.

The one concrete step that Obama could have taken, and should have taken, is a suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt. I’ve heard the arguments against an aid cutoff: The aid supposedly gives us leverage because the Egyptian economy is a basketcase and an aid cutoff will harm the most vulnerable in Egyptian society. Another argument says that the money withdrawn will be replaced by the aid of others, including people we don’t like–this will supposedly give them great influence. Thus, we can’t cede this opportunity to others, so we must persist in pretending that the coup wasn’t a coup, because if the Obama administration ever admitted that it was, it would be required by law to cut off aid.

But a counterargument is in order. The Egyptian economy is indeed a basketcase, but arguably because of U.S. aid. More accurately, the economy is a mess because of some really foolish policies adopted by the Egyptian government over the years, policies effectively abetted by U.S. support. Do those who oppose an aid cutoff believe that the Egyptian government will reverse its harmful economic policies if the aid continues, but are less likely to do so if it continues unabated?

Similarly, one could logically argue that we have only limited influence over events on the ground in Egypt, while also claiming that our aid gives us that influence. But does it follow, then, that an aid cutoff will reduce minimal influence to zero influence? So what if it did? The truth is that the United States, as the most powerful country in the world, has some influence over countries that receive no U.S. foreign aid, and, sometimes, little influence over countries that receive a lot

In the end, the absurdity of the U.S. position in Egypt is revealed by the fact that both sides direct their ire at the United States, a point that Obama made in his statement today. We are, once again, damned, no matter what we do. Which seems like a pretty good argument for doing less.