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.