America Should Support Democracy... Right?

Obama has good reasons for going against America's principles in favor of cynical pragmatism. That doesn't mean it's the right decision.

The situation in Egypt provides a great example of the ethical conundrums that await any leader when dealing with foreign policy. What just happened in Egypt can only reasonably be called a military coup. US law requires the US to cut off aid to any country in which a democratically elected leader is overthrown by undemocratic means. In Egypt, the military issued an ultimatum--a military giving order to an elected government (the opposite of how things ought to work). When the government didn't fulfill the military's demands, it seized the president and appointed a caretaker government of its choosing. It also shut down media outlets sympathetic to the elected government, trampling on an essential ingredient for a successful democracy: a free press. Legally, then, the case for cutting off the US's annual aid of $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military is pretty clear-cut. So far, Obama has shied away from declaring that the coup was, in fact, a coup, in order to keep his options open.

Beyond the legality of US aid to the Egyptian military, moreover, there are also myriad moral issues at stake. How can the US honestly claim to support democracy when it only does so if it likes the regime that was overthrown? Not cutting off aid makes the US look like a complete hypocrite and undermines its moral authority when trying to push for democracy elsewhere. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where Islam-inspired political parties may now conclude that democracy won't work and that the only way to get to power is to seize power and shut down all opposition. The Middle East's experiment with democracy could be over before it starts.

So why hasn't the US cut off aid? This is where it gets complicated. It started paying aid to Egypt in 1979 as part of its support of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Egypt agreed to sign the treaty and demilitarize the Sinai Peninsula, thereby fulfilling Israel's security needs. This was the right thing to do, as it supported peace, even though it was aid to the military of a dictatorship. It also helped shift Egypt out of the Soviet orbit during the Cold War. Over the years since, the US military has fostered close ties to its counterpart in Egypt. This is the strongest connection between the US and Egypt. During last year's uprising that brought down Mubarak, the US is said to have used the good relationship between the two countries' militaries to encourage, and to push for, democratic elections in Egypt. All good stuff, then.

The reasons for not cutting the aid are all related to this. Egypt has all the leverage with the aid. The aid is related to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. It it's cut, Egypt might retaliate by abrogating the treaty. This doesn't necessarily mean war with Israel or even re-militarization of Sinai, but it could be the first step in rising instability between the two of them. The aid lies at the root of the cooperation between the militaries of the US and Egypt, and that cooperation is the greatest source of influence between the two. Canceling the aid would thus most likely end the cooperation and thus the US's last source of influence in Egypt. That would mean the US would have less ability to encourage a return to democracy or peace with Israel. This is why it's so tricky to stay involved and to stay "morally" clean in this case.

There are no easy answers, but I think I have to side with John McCain on this one: Suspend aid. Suspend, not terminate. It should be known that aid will be restored as soon as free and fair elections have been held and providing Egypt sticks to the peace treaty with Israel. When aid is restored, back payments should also be made, so Egypt suffers no loss in the long term.

It's a risky strategy, admittedly. Egypt has enough difficulties at home that it would make no sense to start problems with Israel. This oft-cited fact is little comfort, however. It is precisely during times of great internal turmoil that rulers do unexpected, illogical, and dangerous things. After all, what better way to unite the Egyptian people behind the government than by ditching an unpopular treaty with Israel and possibly making aggressive noises towards it? Israel can definitely defend itself, but an escalation of that kind would still be dangerous for Israel, Egypt, and the whole region. If Obama seems indecisive about whether to stick to America's principles or go with cynical pragmatism, this is why.


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