Even though Congress is fuming over Egypt's decision to prosecute American civil-society workers in its courts, two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders said the United States should not yet cut off aid to the country.
Egypt’s planned trial of dozens of nonprofit workers—at least 16 of whom are American—for allegedly accepting illegal foreign funds and stirring unrest in the country sparked a firestorm on Capitol Hill. If Egypt goes ahead with the prosecution of personnel from prominent Washington-based groups like the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, including the son of a U.S. Cabinet member, the virtually sacrosanct package of U.S. military aid could be in real jeopardy for the first time in three decades.
Yet Insiders were wary of severing the aid package. "Cutting off aid means losing Egypt. We can reduce aid; we can seek other forms of pressure. But a total cutoff will backfire," one Insider said. Another added: “Our interests in Egypt are bigger than these Americans facing trial.”
As it stands, the decision to deny Egypt $1.3 billion in security assistance is essentially in the administration's hands. New conditions set by Congress on military aid for fiscal 2012 require certification that the Egyptian government is supporting a democratic transition and implementing policies to protect due process of law and freedom of expression, association, and religion. It would be impossible for the administration to certify that these conditions are being met while the Egyptian government continues to prosecute civil-society workers, and using a waiver would be politically difficult because of burgeoning anger on Capitol Hill.
The restrictions do not apply to economic assistance, though, which amounts to about $250 million. Thirty-six percent of Insiders agreed that this crisis should be a breaking point for Egypt aid. “At some point, enough is enough,” one Insider said.
“Egypt is an important partner in the region, but at some point there has to be some accountability,” another Insider said. “Egyptians have long viewed U.S. assistance as a birthright, and it’s time for the U.S. to demonstrate that some activities, like persecuting American citizens, will not be tolerated."
Meanwhile, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues his punishing crackdown, senators like Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., are calling on the United States to provide the Syrian opposition with access to weapons and tactical intelligence.
That would be an unacceptable solution to nearly three-quarters of the Insiders. Fourty-three percent said that Washington should not arm the rebels. "Adding arms to the Syrian cauldron would make a bloody civil war even bloodier," one Insider said. Thirty percent said the United States should stay away from direct involvement—but it should encourage other countries to provide weapons in Washington's stead.
Twenty-seven percent of Insiders said the United States should aid the uprising against Assad by arming the opposition. "We are really sending mixed messages to the international community on the Syrian issue, and it dilutes our credibility," one Insider said.
Even those Insiders cautioned that providing weapons should not lead to direct military involvement in the conflict. "We should arm the rebels and have others do the same. But we should not take military action of any kind," one Insider said. "No-fly zones ... lead to participation in combat, even if that consists of 'leading from behind.' "
1. Should the U.S. cut off aid to Egypt if it continues with its plan to prosecute American and other civil society workers?
- No: 64 percent
- Yes: 36 percent
“Our interests in Egypt are bigger than these Americans facing trial."
“Cutting off aid means losing Egypt. We can reduce aid; we can seek other forms of pressure. But a total cutoff will backfire."
“It provides leverage for more important issues."
“Pressures short of a complete cutoff of aid would be appropriate."
“The old guard has overreached here. Let the internal dynamics of Egyptian politics—with a lot of invisible American arm-twisting—produce the right result."
“Pressure for prosecution of the foreign democracy and civil-society advisers emanates from Mubarak-era holdovers playing the nationalist card, in order to salvage their declining legitimacy.… That the military establishment is too weak and divided to resist the scam shows how tenuous is its hold. The West should intensify pressure for a democratic transition in Egypt and for the military to become more professional and cede its inappropriate, corrupt control over a large swath of the economy. U.S. military aid to Egypt should be linked to military reform."
“It sounds like an unfair prosecution orchestrated by an unreconstructed Mubarak supporter. If the military cannot change this, we should not be supporting the military."
“At some point, enough is enough."
“Egypt is an important partner in the region, but at some point there has to be some accountability. Egyptians have long viewed U.S. assistance as a birthright, and it’s time for the United States to demonstrate that some activities, like persecuting American citizens, will not be tolerated."
2. Should the U.S. arm the rebels in Syria?
- No: 43 percent
- No, but it should encourage another country to supply weapons: 30 percent
- Yes: 27 percent
"Bashar will go when his allies desert him and his army melts. We need to focus on that."
"Adding arms to the Syrian cauldron would make a bloody civil war even bloodier."
"Weapons can end up in wrong hands as we are finding out in Libya."
"We should get out of the war business for a few years and let others in the world take a crack at it to see how hard it is, then they will look to us to come back and do it for them instead of hating us for getting involved in everything."
No, but it should encourage another country to supply weapons
"The rebels will obtain much of their weaponry from Syria’s own stocks as defections from the security forces gain momentum. Sunni Arab countries will supply money and additional arms. In Turkey and elsewhere outside Syria, NATO countries should provide paramilitary training and non-lethal support equipment to rebel leaders. In parallel, they should offer training for promising civilian leaders in political development, governance, and economic reform. After Assad is overthrown, these will become urgent tasks, made more daunting by humanitarian suffering, economic destruction caused by the war, and embittered and disenfranchised Alawites and other minorities who supported Assad. Hopefully, the West will offer more and quicker aid for rebuilding and reconciliation than it has in Egypt."
"We are really sending mixed messages to the international community on the Syrian issue and it dilutes our credibility."
"We should arm the rebels, and have others do the same. But we should not take military action of any kind. No-fly zones, etc. lead to participation in combat, even if that consists of 'leading from behind.' "
"But ... need to put steps in place to limit the weapons from falling into the wrong hands among the rebels."
"We should have covert operations there that can be escalated—more effective perhaps than supplying arms."
"It's OK for the administration to lead from behind on this issue, but right now it's simply behind."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts. They are:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the February 28, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.