Despite the Egyptian military’s brutal crackdown on government protesters, which has resulted in more than 500 deaths, President Obama declined to suspend America’s annual $1.3 billion in military assistance to the country. In fact, in Thursday’s 800-word address from Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama did not say the words "aid" or "coup." Instead, he took the more modest step of cancelling next month’s joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt.
"The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces," he said. "While 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."
The statements divided those seeking a sharp U.S. break from Egypt’s military and those who hold the U.S.-Egypt relationship as sacrosanct. "While suspending joint military exercises as the President has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy in a statement.
Pushing back against the "cut the aid" camp, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass supported the president’s decision. "Agree with US line re Egypt," he tweeted. "Cancel exercise, keep aid in place, but puts generals on notice that time running out absent restraint/reform."
The question now is, how much time can the U.S. afford to give Egyptian generals as the slaughter of antigovernment protesters continues? As it stands, the death toll in Egypt has climbed to more than 500 with the number of injured up to 3,700. Following the military’s crackdown on two sit-ins on Wednesday, Egypt’s widely-respected Vice President Mohammad ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, resigned in protest.
Now, some of President Obama’s toughest foreign policy critics in Congress are in an awkward position, given their recent votes on Egyptian aid. Sen. John McCain told The Wall Street Journal yesterday that Obama’s policies on Egypt were a "colossal failure" and urged the president to cut off the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. sends to Egypt. However, just two weeks ago, when Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was well underway, though the street violence not so much, he voted against cutting off aid to the country.
"It would be a terrific mistake for the United States to send a message to Egypt: you’re on your own," McCain said on the Senate floor. "I urge my colleagues to vote to table the Paul amendment."
The amendment, which would’ve suspended aid to Egypt until the government holds free elections, was rejected in a landslide 86-13 vote.
Still, in his Thursday address, Obama did not suggest that U.S. aid to Egypt was set in stone. "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," he said. "Let me say that the Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. And to the Egyptian people, let me say the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop."