White House officials announced Wednesday night that the Obama administration will substantially curtail assistance to Egypt, but that they aspired, according to the Washington Post, “to maintain a robust military and diplomatic partnership with Egypt.” Among other restrictions, the administration will withhold delivery on high-priority military items such as F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, M1 tanks, and Harpoon missiles that are under contract.
Analysts and diplomats are divided on the degree to which Washington will be able to limit be able to contain the political and diplomatic fallout from the decision, which CNN described as “a dramatic shift toward a major Arab ally.” Early reactions from inside Egypt, from the U.S.’s regional allies, and from Congress indicate that the White House may face trouble convincing key partners that the cut was, as Secretary of State John Kerry suggested today, “by no means is this a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the government.”
Stories throughout the day described frustration and anger across the Arab world, both within Egypt and among the U.S.’s Arab allies. Washington has for decades been able to leverage strong ties between the U.S. and Egypt to secure militarily critical preferential overflight rights and access to the Suez Canal. Egyptian army officials indicated yesterday that the new bilateral climate may force Cairo to reevaluate those practices.
The U.S.’s Middle East allies expressed broad fears that the U.S. decision signaled it was either withdrawing from the region, or was no longer committed to its traditional relationship, or both. The New York Times quoted one Israeli official as worrying that the move will be seen “as the United States dropping a friend.” The Wall Street Journal piled on quotes:
The aid cut, following the U.S. decision against military action in Syria, left some of Washington’s allies in the Middle East—including Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—frustrated with what they describe as America’s unwillingness to assert itself in the volatile region, according to Arab and Israeli officials…
Cutting aid “can have dismal consequences, way beyond Egypt,” a senior Israeli official said on Wednesday. “It’s a sign to the whole Middle East that America is stepping back and is not interested anymore. It’s going to affect America’s position from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.”… “One hears in the Middle East more and more voices which say America is no longer someone you can rely on, or someone who really counts in the Middle East,” said a diplomat from an Arab country closely allied with Washington.
A Western diplomat quoted in the same WSJ article differed with this evaluation, insisting that “the U.S. isn’t withdrawing from Egypt if it cuts aid to the military… it is just engaging differently.”
Back inside Washington, the National Journal chronicled a range of bipartisan anger. An article headlined “Congress slams Obama team on Egypt aid decision” had members blasting the administration over both the process and the substance of the decision:
[T]he decision largely fell flat on Capitol Hill as even key Democratic lawmakers complained that they were cut out of the decision-making process… The announcement came after a flurry of news reports disclosing details of the aid adjustment the night before, which “blindsided” many in Congress, including Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee… Engel said, “but I’m ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, an ally of the administration. I would think they would want to at least brief my staff.… I’m hoping this is a wake-up call. The process has got to change, and the policy is a mistake.”…
It’s not just Democrats who are upset about the administration’s lack of consultation. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Egypt assistance, said in a statement she is “very concerned” about the administration’s decision to suspend aid “without consulting the Congress.”
Washington Institute fellow and Egypt expert Eric Trager described the decision, which came after months of White House discomfort at the Egyptian army’s move to remove the country’s former Muslim Brotherhood-linked president Mohammed Morsi from power, as based on “a fundamental misunderstanding of what transpired in Egypt this past summer.”