Egypt: The Foreign Policy of Indulgence

The Clinton Administration has just proposed a $3.2 billion sale of military equipment to Egypt that includes some of the most sophisticated weapons in the U.S. arsenal. It appears the deal will easily be approved by Congress and the pro-Israel community will not object. This is not only a big mistake, but an extremely dangerous one. The sale should be vigorously opposed on grounds that it is bad for the interests of the United States, Israel, and, most of all, Egypt.

The first question is what possible justification is there for the sale of any military equipment to Egypt? Who threatens Egypt? The Administration is selling Egypt Patriot anti-missile batteries. Who do they think is going to shoot missiles at them? The truth is that Egypt faces no external threat. Its neighbors are no match for the might of the Egyptian military and show no signs of wanting to issue a challenge. The threat Egypt faces is internal, primarily from Islamic fundamentalists who have murdered tourists and government officials. What use are new F-16s and M1-A1 tanks against Muslim clerics?

The usual "If we don't sell them arms someone else will" argument doesn't apply here. Undoubtedly other nations would like to sell the Egyptians arms, but what would they use to pay for them, their good looks? Egypt has no money, they're an American welfare client. As it is, the Administration said the purchase would be financed out of the $1.2 billion in military aid we provide them. Put another way, the U.S. taxpayer is buying arms the Egyptians don't need.

All right, there is an economic argument to be made. Primarily that it is a way to go around the limitations of the defense budget to pump money into the U.S. defense industry. This way companies can produce more weapons and, in theory, lower the overall cost of the ones the U.S. military buys, keep production lines open, and create jobs.

You might ask why we don't just buy the weapons for our own forces and accomplish the same thing result, which brings us to the other reason for making the sale, diplomatic cowardice. The Egyptians want new toys and if don't give them what they want, they'll throw a tantrum. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Egyptians would be insulted and consider it a breech of our friendship if we don't make the sale. I think he's just enunciated a new foreign policy doctrine, the policy of indulgence. Give our friends what they want to keep them happy. Heck, its worked for years with the Saudis, why not apply it across the board.

This sale is not in Egypt's interest because the money would be far better spent on butter than guns. The Egyptian population continues to explode while imports of food skyrocket and unemployment grows worse. In a country where half the population (and two-thirds of women) is illiterate, wouldn't it be better to buy books than missiles? The misery created by these domestic problems is exploited by the radical fundamentalists and creates political instability. For years, I've advocated slashing Egypt's military aid and converting most or all of it to economic aid since this is what the Egyptian people really need.

The Israeli lobby will wink at the sale because it adopted the policy of supporting assistance to countries that make peace with Israel and the Israeli government won't make a stink because it is also reluctant to upset the Egyptians. Still, the threat posed to Israel by this sale is far greater than other regional developments that make Israel's friends apoplectic.

Rogue regimes like Iran and Iraq are dangerous, but they are also hundreds of miles away from Israel’s borders and have little incentive to directly attack. Egypt is right on Israel's doorstep and, unlike the other two, has provoked five wars. Since the country faces no external threats from its neighbors and the weapons its acquired are useless against internal enemies, the only possible target of the Egyptian military is Israel. This reality is reinforced by the army’s exercises, which are aimed at preparing for a battle with the IDF.

Egypt has kept the peace despite all the ups and downs of the last two decades, but the quality of relations with Israel hardly justifies letting down one's guard. Whenever a stalemate occurs in talks between Israel and the Palestinians or Syrians, it seems that President Hosni Mubarak makes every effort to harden the Arab position. He is unrestrained in his criticism of Israel and his behavior has not changed because of his dislike for Benjamin Netanyahu; he was equally hostile during the Rabin-Peres years. He has refused to visit Israel, except to attend Rabin’s funeral, and has allowed the government-controlled press to publish anti-Semitic articles and cartoons.

For more than 20 years, the United States has been providing Egypt with some of our most sophisticated weapons. Though still not as well trained as Israeli forces, the Egyptians have leveled the playing field somewhat with U.S.-made “smart” weapons, joint exercises with American forces, and now this proposed sale. Consider the current balance of power: Egypt has 440,000 soldiers and another 254,000 in reserve compared to Israel's standing force of 175,000 and 430,000 reserves. Egypt has approximately 3,400 tanks and 505 aircraft while Israel has 4,300 and 780. President Hosni Mubarak would not be happy about being denied his request, but this would actually be a way to strengthen the peace with Israel because it would impede the Egyptian military from becoming a threat to Israel.

It is time the United States stood up to its demanding clients. End the foreign policy of indulgence, cancel the arms sale to Egypt.