White House Waffles on Egypt, Again

The Obama administration is right to suspend some but not all military aid. If only they could make that message clearer.

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Mohamed El-Shahed / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian mourners at the funeral of Giza security chief Nabil Farrag in the district of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, on Sept. 20, 2013.

In a delayed response to the military-backed coup that pushed out Egypt‘s first elected president Mohamed Morsi in July, the United Sates is completely reversing its position and withdrawing all financial support to Egypt’s army—or maybe not. CNN recently broke the story on Twitter that the Obama administration was cutting its annual military assistance package of $1.3-$1.5 billion. Shortly after, the White House denied the CNN report, but yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Washington is cutting some but not all of the aid.

(MORE:  U.S. Likely to Cut Most Military Aid to Egypt)

The unfortunate reality is that the Obama administration’s inability to send one cogent, clear message regarding Egypt aid is symptomatic of its foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Even when it makes the right call, as it has with its decision to cut part of the Egypt assistance package, the White House’s scattershot messaging is evidence of the sort of indecisive policymaking that baffles allies and harms the national interest.

This is only the latest in a series of confused, and confusing, Middle East policies. Take Syria, for instance. Since the beginning of the uprising in Spring 2011, Obama has dithered and misdirected. In June of this year, administration officials let on, without any official announcement, that Obama was enforcing a redline over chemical weapons by sending arms to the Syrian rebels—arms that never arrived. Last month, the president threatened a strike against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and then sought authorization from congress, where he had little support for any military action. With Obama signing onto an initiative put forth by Russian president, and Assad ally, Vladimir Putin to get rid of Syria’s unconventional weapons arsenal, American allies are anxious that the White House will make an equally spurious deal over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Washington’s regional partners—from Israel to Saudi Arabia—fear that the United States, the Middle East’s power broker for more than 40 years, has absented itself from the region. And the administration’s indecisiveness regarding Egypt is unlikely to steady any nerves.

But back to Egypt. Ever since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed Morsi from the presidency, the White House hasn’t even known whether to call the forced removal of an elected president from office a coup or something else. (Bizarrely, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Sisi had moved to “restore democracy.”) Now it seems the administration has decided—sort of.

According to the Journal, “assistance for Egypt’s efforts to secure its borders with Israel and to combat militancy in the Sinai Peninsula would continue,” as will efforts “to combat al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.” In other words, the Obama White House will give Egypt precisely what it needs to fight a growing insurgency in the Sinai, where Islamist militants, many of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, have killed more than 100 Egyptian security officers since Morsi’s ouster.

(MOREEgypt Has Never Been More Important)

Winning this insurgency is Egypt’s most vital national interest at present, which is to say the Obama administration is doing the right thing. The White House is also correct in declining to send along the customary big-ticket items—like F-16s, Abrams tanks, etc.—that flatter the vanity of Egyptian officers but are entirely unnecessary. Egypt is not going to war with Israel or the army of any other nation-state right now, and there is no reason to coddle a military that overthrew the country’s first freely elected, and civilian, president.

By suspending some but not all American aid, the White House is also not siding with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood against the army. It is simply abiding by American values, while continuing to assist a longtime American ally in its war against radical Islamists. If only the Obama administration could make that message clear.

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