In late July 2013, the Obama administration decided that it was not legally required to determine whether the Egyptian military had led a coup in ousting President Morsi. The decision permitted the administration to continue $1.5 billion annually in American aid to Egypt. One senior official said only, “The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination. We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say,” the official said.” I’m reminded of one of Captain Renault’s famous lines in the film, Casablanca. “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Coup? What coup? To be sure, the administration had its reasons, strategic of course, yet a bigger picture perspective could be helpful here, considering that an effort to violate at least the spirit of a law is involved here.
Administration officials said the U.S. Government would continue to use financial aid as a lever to pressure Egypt’s new government to push through a transition to democracy. Yet what cost to the U.S. Government would this intent to manipulate the Egyptian military exact?
A Coup or a Book-Signing?
Refusing even to decide if this is a coup reflects on the refuser.
On July 3, 2013, Egyptian generals deposed President Morsi, put him under arrest, and suspended the constitution. “Under the terms of the Foreign Assistance Act, no aid other than that for democracy promotion can be given to ‘any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état.’ The law does not allow a presidential waiver, and stipulates that aid cannot be restored until ‘a democratically elected government has taken office.’” Refusing to decide whether a coup took place is essentially refusing to enforce the law, given the events in Egypt on July 3, 2013.
Fittingly, one of Morsi’s senior advisors, Wael Haddara, accused the administration of “verbal acrobatics,” and asked, “With the entire world calling this a coup, why isn’t the American administration calling it so?” The reference to “verbal acrobatics” is particularly important, for it hints on the discrediting long-term impact on the U.S. Government by its president’s decision to take an easy out. Generally speaking, political convenience can come back to bite even if the pain is not ever felt directly. In other words, the Obama administration sacrificed some of the U.S. Government’s credibility to be able to manipulate another government through money.
A similar trade-off existed at the time in Europe regarding the matter of Turkey’s possible accession an E.U. state. Turkey would be the largest state by population, and thus would have tremendous influence in the E.U. Government. The added cultural and political diversity to the E.U. could cause it added strain, if not compromise the very viability of the Union. So why would the E.U. admit Turkey when doing so could put the E.U. itself at risk internally? Similar to the Obama administration’s desire to have more influence in the Egyptian military, the European Commission would like to use Turkey as a “way in” to influence Middle East international relations.
Both cases evince putting one’s own federal government at risk in order to manipulate other governments. At the very least, the strategy of undercutting oneself to extend one’s influence seems counterproductive. That the influence comes well before “the bill comes due” creates the illusion of a costless choice. Looking out for the long-term governing of a union of diverse states, whether in Europe or North America, is easily shirked when the opportunity to pull more levers externally presents itself. A federal government willingly undercutting its own credibility or ability to govern for a short-term advantage is not only short-sighted; it is also indicative of a certain lack of character. The question is perhaps whether that lack of character is societal in nature or merely in ruling elites.
See the video made to accompany this essay: http://youtu.be/_1yuvnOq5YE
1. Mark Landler, “Aid to Egypt Can Keep Flowing, Despite Overthrow, White House Decides,” The New York Times, July 25, 2013.