In deciding the famous case between two women claiming the same child, King Solomon propounded his “splitting the baby” solution because he knew there would be no need to actually cut the baby in two. It would be clear from the claimants’ responses who the real mother was.
The Obama administration, by contrast, makes “splitting the baby” a regular feature of its policies. This is invariably a bad idea. At best, you end up with two pieces of a dead baby: something no one can use, everyone will be upset over, and that gives at least one party to your compromise nothing else to lose.
The latest instance of splitting the baby is the administration’s decision to impose a putatively friendly, encouraging, partial suspension of aid to Egypt, as a method of rebuking the Egyptians for ousting Mohammed Morsi, without cutting off aid altogether.
If the Obama administration thinks this will be read by the Egyptian people, or by aspirants to democratic government across the Middle East, as a blow for their interests, it could hardly be more comprehensively wrong. Twenty million Egyptians took to the streets only a matter of weeks ago because they wanted desperately to kick Morsi out. In theory, he was elected by fair means in 2012. But his regime had quickly become intolerably despotic.
The Muslim Brotherhood is regarded with fear and alarm by moderates and the apolitical, as well as by democratizers, throughout the region. Its prospective victims see nothing good in the idea that the U.S. government may tie foreign aid to a nation’s willingness to accept the Muslim Brotherhood in the halls of government power – or, indeed, to a nation’s willingness to endure without recourse the results of an election, no matter what those results are. It is by no means an effective advertisement for constitutional government, to imply that it means a people must submit to seeing their neighbors’ churches burned down, or their own livelihoods and their free press outlets mowed under by sharia enforcers. The benefit of consensual, constitutional government is supposed to be that those things don’t happen to the people.
Obama is already seen by too many in the Middle East as backing the Muslim Brotherhood. This latest move will only reinforce that dangerous perception. Unfortunately, it also throws into question America’s current attitude toward the investment we made in the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, in which control of the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt and the two nations agreed to demilitarize it and observe confidence-building forms of consultation over its security.
A key element of that agreement, proposed in the consultations at Camp David in 1978, was the U.S. investment in the military posture of both nations. Washington doesn’t arm Egypt just because we like Egyptians and think they’re great, although of course we do. We arm Egypt as part of our commitment to the regional-stability vehicle that is the peace between Egypt and Israel.
The 1979 peace accord is a core element of our policy in the region: a foundation, a base, a pillar, a first principle, a sine qua non. Like our investment in the Organization of American States, like our investment in NATO, like our investment in our alliances with our Far Eastern allies, our investment in the 1979 peace accord is policy bedrock for the United States. We do things just because of it: because it’s still our policy, and it’s our policy for good reason. Because it keeps the peace.
What Obama has chosen to withhold in the partial suspension of aid to Egypt is precisely the list of major weapon systems that we supply as our investment in the Egyptian peace accord with Israel: the F-16 fighter jets, the Apache helicopters, the Harpoon missiles, the upgrade kits for M1A1 Abrams tanks. The counterterrorism aid that will not be interrupted is not significant to Egypt’s security posture vis-à-vis Israel; what matters is the major, conventional weapon systems.
The stability of the accord is predicated in large part on the U.S. guarantee of a balanced approach: an investment in ensuring that neither party to the accord loses its security footing. Failing to deliver major weapon systems or important upgrades to them jeopardizes this guarantee, and by extension the accord’s stability.
If ever a situation was crying out for quiet diplomacy, it’s this one. A couple of hours ago, on Fox, I heard Charles Krauthammer argue that if our law requires us to withhold aid to a foreign partner to whom we obviously need to keep aid flowing, then we should change the law. There is certainly that option, but I think there is plenty of room for simply doing some effective things more quietly. Rather than abruptly announcing an aid suspension to the media, we could work with the Egyptian provisional government – quietly – to lay out some agreed milestones that would get the weapons deliveries back on track.
Obama should certainly satisfy Congress on the progress of such negotiations. But there need not be freighted moments of publicity suggesting an interruption of America’s interest in the military balance integral to the Israel-Egypt peace accord.
Unfortunately, such a freighted moment is what we have just had, in the last couple of hours. It really isn’t possible to overstate the danger of sending undisciplined, perhaps inadvertent signals in this manner. The American commitment to the 1979 peace accord, as a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East, is something that cannot come into question without throwing the door wide open to destabilization.
I can never quite tell if what we’re seeing from the Obama administration is ineptitude coupled with a peculiar, triangulated ideological moralism, or if it’s something else (it’s hard to even say what). It seems unlikely to me that there was no one – no one at all – involved in the administration’s deliberations on this who understood the ramifications for the 1979 accord and Middle East stability in general. But if there was someone, how did things get done in this careless, haphazard manner?
Exit question: how much longer can any semblance of a status quo in global security hold, with the United States government exercising no care to at least observe its forms?