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The Independent Institute
Commentary

What Egypt Tells Us About U.S. Foreign Aid


More than 200 people have died in violence since army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Predictably, there is hand wringing in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry called the violence “a pivotal moment for Egypt” and urged its leaders “to help their country take a step back from the brink.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urged restraint in a phone call with al-Sisi. And White House spokesman Josh Earnest proclaimed that “the United States strongly condemns the bloodshed and violence in Cairo and Alexandria.”

What’s a superpower to do?

Even before the outbreak of violence, President Obama ordered a halt to the scheduled delivery of four F-16 fighters to the Egyptian air force. But that’s just a slap on the wrist. Instead, the United States should cut off the more than $1.5 billion per year Egypt receives in foreign aid. The Foreign Assistance Act clearly states in Section 508 that the United States must cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Although the administration refuses to call Morsi’s ouster a coup, that’s exactly what it was.

The unspoken rationale underlying U.S. foreign aid is the belief that recipient countries will behave the way we want them to. Yet there seems to be little prospect that either side in Egypt will do what the United States wants.

Indeed, at least some administration officials are mystified by the hard line being taken by both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood. “None of us can quite figure this out,” a senior U.S. official said. “It seems so self-defeating.”

If that’s the case, it hardly seems prudent to continue to risk more than a billion U.S. dollars annually on the slim hope that the Egyptians will come to their senses anytime soon.

Ultimately, the issue of U.S. foreign aid to Egypt begs the larger question: the wisdom of foreign aid writ large.

The United States lavishes about $50 billion annually in economic and military assistance on other countries around the world. Historically, the top recipient has been Israel (more than $3 billion in fiscal year 2012), yet those billions have not compelled the Israeli government to stop settlements in the occupied territories, a top U.S. priority.

Afghanistan is number two on the list. But with civilian casualties on the rise (up 23 percent in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations), Afghanistan will likely descend into a state of internecine conflict as the U.S. prepares to pull out by the end of 2014. This already is happening in Iraq (number four on the list), where a rash of bombings in the last month has brought the death toll to more than 3,000 since April. And why does the U.S. give more than $2 billion per year to Pakistan, a country that provides sanctuary to the Taliban, which is responsible for much of the carnage in Afghanistan?

What do Angola, Cambodia, Chad, Haiti, Laos, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe have in common? They all receive U.S. foreign aid and, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, boast some of the most corrupt governments in the world—strong-arm governments in most cases.

If money can’t buy the United States influence, it’s also not buying America a lot love. According to a recent Pew poll, in Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan only 16, 14 and 11 percent of their respective populations have a favorable view of the United States. And an analysis of the State Department’s “Voting Practices in the United Nations 2011” reveals that on what the State Department considers important resolutions the majority of countries that receive U.S. foreign aid voted against the United States the majority of the time.

Egypt is a clarion call to stop throwing good money after bad. U.S. foreign aid to corrupt and authoritarian regimes, with no realistic expectation that we’ll get a favorable payback, is a losing bet.


Charles Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.

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