Egypt in the rearview mirror

An Egyptian armored vehicle and army soldiers stand guard outside the main Christian Orthodox Cathedral in the southern city of Assiut, Egypt.
An Egyptian armored vehicle and army soldiers stand guard outside the main Christian Orthodox Cathedral in the southern city of Assiut, Egypt.
(Roger Anis / Associated Press)

When it comes to Egypt, the U.S. has little leverage and therefore no real options. That’s according to the prevailing wisdom, at least.

Yet this analysis — endlessly reiterated in mainstream commentary — is misleading. The absence of leverage does not preclude options. It certainly does not require the Obama administration to debase itself by pretending that the military overthrow of a freely elected government is not a coup or by accepting the Egyptian army’s slaughter of civilians with no more than a tsk-tsk. The administration may choose to do these things, but not because circumstances oblige it to do so.

Identifying our options in Egypt requires examining U.S. policy in a broader context, since the events unfolding in that country are emblematic of a much larger failure.


It may help to recall how the United States forged its perverse relationship with the Egyptian army in the first place. That relationship dates from the 1978 Camp David accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter. Rather than receiving a commission, the broker in this case ended up on the hook, promising to compensate the contracting parties for doing what each had agreed to do. From that day to the present, the United States has annually funneled billions of taxpayer dollars to Egypt and Israel. Rather than furthering the cause of mutual understanding — funding education programs or cultural exchanges, for example — most of that money has gone to the purchase of advanced weaponry.

What are we to make of this arrangement? Writing in the New York Times, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt recently noted that “in the four decades before Camp David, Israel and Egypt fought several major wars; in the nearly four decades since, none.”

True enough, and a welcome development. Yet no less true, if much less welcome, is this: In the four decades before Camp David, the U.S. had managed to steer clear of war in the Middle East; in the nearly four decades since, U.S. involvement in hostilities throughout the region has become routine, with little to show as a result.

What becomes clear in retrospect is that Camp David mattered less as a milestone on the road to peace than as a departure point signaling a radical transformation of U.S. policy. Before Camp David, in the Pentagon’s eyes, the region had qualified as an afterthought. After Camp David — and especially as the Cold War wound down — it became the center of attention.

Underlying the shift in U.S. policy inaugurated by Carter was the expectation that military “engagement” (to use a favorite Pentagon term) was going to enhance U.S. leverage throughout the region. Leverage adroitly applied, whether directly or through proxies, would enable the U.S. to promote stability and perhaps eventually help pacify the Middle East. As a means of solving problems, or at least keeping them manageable, military power was displacing diplomacy.

In the years that followed, in ways that Carter himself neither envisioned nor intended, a flurry of military activity ensued. Egypt and (in its way) Israel became Washington’s favored proxies, but they were by no means its only ones. During the 1980s, in its efforts to “contain” Iran, the U.S. enlisted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an ally. Throughout that same decade, responding to a perceived Soviet threat to the Persian Gulf, Washington provided weapons and other support to the Afghan mujahedin.

Yet the U.S. appetite for direct military action in the region was also increasing. First there was the “tanker war” of 1984-88 against Iran, the initiation of hostilities against our erstwhile Iraqi ally in 1991, and armed intervention in Somalia the following year. U.S. airstrikes against various targets throughout the greater Middle East punctuated the Bill Clinton era. Then, after 9/11, came the (ongoing) Afghanistan war, Round 2 of the Iraq war, armed intervention in Libya and small-scale actions in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

This crowded narrative provides the context for assessing what “engagement” has wrought not only in Egypt but throughout the region. What can we say of the results achieved?

Evidence that U.S. military actions have produced stability or have planted the seeds for a peaceful future is, to put it mildly, hard to come by. Rather than solving problems, the application of American military power has either exacerbated them or proved to be irrelevant. In this regard, the crisis enveloping Egypt merely confirms the results achieved elsewhere. The approach that Washington has pursued in cultivating this key ally simply hasn’t worked.

To argue, therefore, that Washington has no choice but to preserve its links to Egypt’s army qualifies as the height of absurdity. It’s throwing good money after bad, doubling down in hopes of redeeming dubious bets that have repeatedly failed to pay off.

So what’s the policy option? Acknowledge the failure. Fold the cards. Try something different. Whatever the problems roiling the Middle East, weapons sales won’t fix them. Nor will proxy wars. Nor will the further commitment of U.S. troops.

Egypt today offers Washington the opportunity to demilitarize U.S. policy toward this region. Such a change is long overdue. Terminating further assistance to Egypt’s army will mark a necessary first step. Wisdom lies in allowing others to determine their own destiny so that we may pursue our own.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”