- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Middle East pro-democracy movement hailed over the past two years as the Arab Spring was transformed Wednesday when the military junta now controlling Egypt opened a bloody assault on protesters — a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown that seemed to expose the limits of American diplomatic power to pursue lofty goals once envisioned for the region.

In what might be read as a sign that his administration saw few levers it could pull to alter the course of the day’s events, President Obama decided not to break from his August vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to speak publicly about the violence, despite the global outrage over the deaths of more than 200 Egyptians.

Instead, U.S. officials focused Wednesday on keeping the violence from spreading across what many Western observers have come to see as an increasingly volatile tinderbox of a region.

Across Washington’s foreign policy community, a Monday-morning quarterback debate quickly emerged over the “what ifs” and the “too lates” of an American policy that has struggled badly in the post-9/11 era to find its footing in the Middle East.

With details still uncertain about the scale and scope of Wednesday’s carnage, some of the consequences for Egypt’s military and U.S. influence in the region remain to be sorted out.

But a few implications appear clear. U.S. hopes that Egypt’s military could become an influential player in pressing Hamas toward peace in the Israeli-Palestinian talks seem to have evaporated. And the decision to continue U.S. aid to the military after its overthrow of the nation’s first democratically elected leader — regardless of his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood — also likely will be re-evaluated.

SEE ALSO: Egypt’s streets of blood: Full-scale crackdown on Morsi supporters kills more than 500

Analysts, meanwhile, were split on the extent to which the Obama administration may have blown repeated opportunities during the past two years to steer Egypt’s deeply divided population away from the total security meltdown by using U.S. military and humanitarian aid to influence those battling for power in Cairo.

Some argue that Washington could have put teeth behind its pleas for calm by cutting from the roughly $1.5 billion in annual aid. Others say such a move would have had little impact — even during the tension-filled weeks after last month’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.

“Revolutions are not something the U.S. can control. We can influence them, but we need to be very careful about what we do,” said Anthony Cordesman, the senior Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

U.S. law requires a halt of American aid to militaries that have taken over their national governments.

But Mr. Cordesman stood up for the cautious manner with which the Obama administration has resisted characterizing the military’s July 3 overthrow of Mr. Morsi as a “coup.”

“This whole idea of declaring a coup and cutting of arms is kind of like the 8-year-old who doesn’t like the game so he takes his ball and goes home,” he said. “It doesn’t really help.”

Mr. Cordesman added that the situation likely would not be different if a Republican were in the White House.

“Any practical administration would have to deal with the reality that U.S. influence is limited,” he said. “The events are unstable and constantly changing and you cannot basically threaten whoever is in power at any time in visible ways and achieve results.”

“If the U.S. dictates to Egypt,” he said, “Egypt is not going to going to react well.”

Rethinking the aid

The depth of Wednesday’s violence breathed new life into the debate over how Congress and the Obama administration could be using American aid as a tool to steer Egypt toward a path more aligned to U.S. desires for democracy in the region.

According to a June report by the Congressional Research Service, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient — after Israel — of U.S. bilateral assistance since 1979. More than 80 percent of the roughly $1.5 trillion sent annually in recent years has been military-related.

Some analysts say the White House’s approach has been too soft-footed.

“The Obama administration has been very cautious and tentative in its responses to successive waves of changes inside of Egypt — and this tentative approach has left them little leverage over the situation there,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow focused on the Middle East and South Asia at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

While he acknowledged that Egypt’s political strife represents “a difficult situation for any outside actor, including the U.S. to have much leverage” over, Mr. Katulis added that “we should condition our security assistance on how well the Egyptian government is performing in advancing stability and dealing with threats.”

“We should condition our economic assistance on progress toward inclusive democratic governance,” he said. “The current authorities in Egypt are not doing a good job on either front.”

But any move to cut the aid could carry a variety of difficult political and geopolitical implications.

Some analysts have noted how a quick cut could hurt certain sectors of the U.S. weapons manufacturing industry. The June Congressional Research Service report noted that “one of the cornerstones of U.S. military assistance to Egypt” is a 25-year-old program involving U.S.-Egyptian co-production of the M1-A1 Abrams battle tank, for which the prime contractor is Michigan-based General Dynamics Corp.

The tank production program aside, many believe the aid is essential to maintaining regional security. While it bolsters the Egyptian military’s ability to crack down on Islamist terrorists or protesters, it also motivates whoever is in charge in Egypt to honor the country’s 34-year-old peace treaty with Israel.

“It would be a mistake to immediately and unilaterally cut off aid to Egypt, which would weaken Egypt’s ability to fight al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants who have carved out a sanctuary in the Sinai Peninsula and possibly jeopardize Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel,” said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Impact on peace talks?

Questions have swirled in Washington, meanwhile, over the extent to which the Obama administration’s recently rejuvenated push for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have played into the White House’s acceptance of, or acquiescence to, the Egyptian military’s actions.

The military government in Cairo, the argument goes, stands to facilitate success in the process far more than Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood would have, particularly with regard to neutralizing the potentially crippling opposition to the process presented by Hamas.

While the U.S. government classifies the militant Islamist group as a terrorist organization, Hamas holds political control over the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, which borders Egypt.

The coup that ousted Mr. Morsi was “was a major blow to Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mr. Phillips. “Egypt’s army has cracked down on arms smuggling across the border, which has weakened Hamas.”

But whether this crackdown will affect Hamas remains uncertain. “I doubt that Hamas has been weakened enough to abandon its ideological commitment to destroying Israel and replacing it with an Islamist state,” Mr. Phillips said.

Others suggested that the security and political crises inside Egypt are likely to stand in the way of any serious cooperation between Washington and Cairo with regard to Hamas.

“I think it’s far to early to put pressure on the Egyptian military to try to deal with Hamas,” Mr. Cordesman said.

“There are too many other issues that divide Egypt,” he said, going further to note the lack of progress elsewhere on the Israeli-Palestinian front. “There’s no clear peace process yet to show that negotiations are serious.”

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