February 17th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

U.S. leverage over Egypt: Use it or lose it

Editor's Note: Gabriel Kohan is a former Israel Government Fellow and Mark Donig is a former Dean’s Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya’s Program for the Diplomatic Corps. The authors can be followed on Twitter at @TheMidEastBeast.

By Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig - Special to CNN

In 1967, after the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai Peninsula abandoned its position as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser postured toward armed conflict with Israel, then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.N., Abba Eban, compared UNEF to “an umbrella that is taken away as soon as it begins to rain.” The international community, rather than use its leverage, willingly cowed to Egypt, and war soon followed.

Today, Eban’s sentiments could be aptly applied to America’s reticence to use its own leverage over Egypt. Just over a year after President Mubarak’s ouster, U.S.-Egyptian relations are in crisis as 19 American NGO workers face trial in Egypt for their work to promote democracy. And yet, American aid still flows to Egypt unabated as Cairo continues to undermine U.S. interests.

On its face, the explanation for this paradox is that the United States has been dealt a perplexing hand in Egypt in which it must achieve objectives that appear mutually exclusive. On the one hand, Washington has threatened to withdraw its military aid to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) unless Cairo suspends the trial of American citizens. On the other, the U.S. has historically relied on that very same military aid to facilitate and enforce the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, the linchpin of American policy in the Middle East since 1979. Simply put, a full withdrawal of military aid now means that such leverage won’t exist in the future to ensure that the ruling Egyptian government has enough incentive to abide by Camp David, and could be perceived in Cairo as a violation of the peace treaty in and of itself.

The quandary at hand means that the United States must find a middle way that preserves influence in Cairo while still showing the will to act when red lines are crossed. That is why, rather than withdraw military aid to Egypt entirely, the Obama Administration should withhold a specific, but crucially important, aspect of its aid package until the SCAF drops the trial and allows the remaining American NGO workers to go free. The Administration must select a pressure point in the aid that will press the SCAF to end the trials, while also leaving enough of it intact to ensure Egypt’s compliance with Camp David.

One program of paramount importance and prestige to the SCAF is the joint U.S.-Egyptian co-production of M1 Abrams tanks, which comprises the backbone of Egypt’s land forces and whose assembly in Egypt provides a multitude of jobs to the military. Conditionally ceasing this year’s co-production of M1 Abrams tanks would send three key messages, all of them constructive for U.S. influence in Egypt.

First, a partial withholding of military aid would force the SCAF to recognize the costs of its current course of action, and perhaps lead Egypt’s military to drop its scandalous trials of American citizens. Second, even if SCAF were not to change course and the United States cut off the roughly $125 million in funding designated for the Abrams tanks, that would still leave intact over $1 billion in annual military aid and access to other American defense platforms, giving Cairo pause before taking any future action that could violate Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel. Finally, by using part of the its leverage now to address the current crisis, the United States would send a strong signal that it will not hesitate cut off military aid in its entirety should Egypt decide to imperil Camp David.

The overarching theme of these messages - that the United States will respond when other countries cross red lines - is of crucial importance not only to the United States’ interests in Egypt, but to its broader policy objectives across the Middle East, particularly as Iran swiftly approaches nuclear capability. No matter how events develop in Egypt, Iranian leadership will be watching with a keen eye to see if the United States is willing to carry out threats against foreign actions anathema to its interests. It is incumbent that the Administration send a message for all to see that when Egypt, or any country, crosses a red line, the United States is prepared to respond with precision and severity.

Ultimately, how well America plays the hand it has been dealt will depend on whether it can recognize that its key policy objectives toward Egypt need not be mutually exclusive. Washington would do well to heed’s Abba Eban’s lesson from decades ago: Leverage is gained in order to be used. If the United States employs its sway wisely as this latest crisis of relations with Egypt unfolds, Washington may yet stave off the oncoming storm. If the United States makes the mistake of saving its leverage for later, however, it may soon find that it no longer has any left.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig.

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Topics: Aid • Egypt

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    Actually, the U.S. needs to let Egypt do what it wants to. In other words, we need to adopt a laissez-faire foreign policy but the right-wing thugs in Washington are only to greedy to see that!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
    • Jack

      Our corrupt politicians as always; they put the interest of Israel before America. Look at CNN news today "Republican donor expected to shell out $10 million to Gingrich super PAC". Do you know who is this donor? his name is Sheldon Adelson(CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp) a Republican Jewish buying out our government to send our American kids to die for Israel. This donor is big AIPAC supporter and him with Newt Gingrich are willing to destroy our country and livelihood for the sake of Israel. Please don't bother to vote because Americans under the illusion that we vote in our president but in fact it's the money from the Jewish lobbyist is controlling our corrupt congress and president.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
      • KA

        Well Said!

        February 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Can you explain how the raise of Islamists in Egypt or a possible war between Egypt and Israel are IN American interests?

        February 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  2. IRAN IS EVIL

    IF USA WANT TO GET RED OF BASHAR AL KALB IN SYRIA AND THE TERRORISTS HIZBOALLAH IN LEBANON START ATTACKING IRAN NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE ALL THE OTHER TERROR GROUP WILL FALL.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  3. Ahmed Kamel

    When China interfered in the last US elections supporting the Democrats, there was a fury in the USA over a foreign country interfering in the US internal affairs. This is the same in Egypt. How would you like "foreign pro-democracy groups" in the USA?? Is the USA ready to punish 85 million Egyptians for 19 Americans? Additionally when you give aid, AID meaning "Help", you don’t keep threatening with it, besides being a "low class" it creates resentment. Last but not least, America would lose all leverage in the Middle East if it alienates Egypt.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      America IS NOT UNDER OBLIGATION to give aid to Egypt. Especially if Egypt is punishing America by arresting American citizens. America was doing Egypt a great favor giving this aid and it (rightfully) expects a favor of Egypt living in peace with its neighbors in return.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Apparently Egypt's SCAF wasn't behind the charges against the 19 Americans in Cairo, who are accused of engaging in subversive activities. it's Fayza Adoul Noga, erstwhile foreign minister under Mubarak and – as holdover of the old regime – a SCAF-appointed minister of planning and international cooperation, As a friend of the former first lady, she must have resented the U.S. for letting Mubarak fall. Now she has emerged as a symbol of the new populist politics of post-revolution Egypt and consolidated her position by spreading conspiracy theories, suggesting a U.S. role in the current unrest destablising Egypt. The SCAF is not amused, as it didn't want to fall out with the U.S. and lose the military aid.

    February 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  5. Abraham

    Nice way of making Israeli interests seem American.

    February 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  6. norman

    I watched your program sunday Feb. 12 2012 concerning poverty in the industrial nations. Each category that you mention was followed by a caption with a picture and every picture that wwas shown was that of black people. That is very negative for black people and I resent it. Are there any pictures of other poor people? Thank you , looking forward to a response.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  7. Hahahahahahaha

    Let them kill each other forever. Hahahahahahaah

    February 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Reply
  8. Marine5484

    Thank you. Like you, I agree with George above. No country should dictate to another one. After all, we wouldn't like it if some foreign country told us what to do!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  9. Thinker23

    To get along BOTH sides must be willing to do it. When one side is willing to destroy the other it is not possible to "get along". Further, today's Egyptians have NOTHING IN COMMON with the guys who built the pyramids. They're Arabs who invaded Egypt in the 8th Century and destroyed the ancient Egyptian culture.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply

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