A surefire way to determine a person’s priorities is to look at his or her budget and expenditures. The necessities of life demand their share, to be sure, but what becomes of disposable income? Check your own most recent bank statement, and take stock of the results. Are they what you would wish, or did you stumble into a situation you would like to revise?
Can the same test hold true for nations? If so, do the results reflect determined policy or simple inertia?
Many Egyptian activists have criticized the decision of President Obama’s administration to cut funding for the promotion of democracy by $5 million. Furthermore, these funds must be directed to NGOs and civil society organizations registered and approved by the government. On one hand this seems only natural – should the US government allow foreign donations to be received by quasi-legitimate Islamic charities, for example, which may or may not have ties to terrorist agencies?
On the other hand these same Egyptian activists would flip this comparison in their favor, stating that the government views ‘civil society’ as a threat in the same manner the US would look at these under-the-radar charities. Though this is a stretch, they maintain that Mubarak’s government only admits registration to those organizations which will not contest its rule. By funding only registered NGOs, it is said, the US ‘promotion of democracy’ only further entrenches the effective one party system which has existed since the military revolution of 1952.
The $5 million reduction is a full one-fifth decline from the previous allotment of $25 million. For all the grief President Bush received in Egypt for his policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, many of these activists will praise him for the pressure he placed on the Mubarak government which, they say, genuinely opened the civil society field and resulted in greater freedoms across the board. Conversely, President Obama stands accused, at least by one prominent activist, as returning to the days in which the US openly ‘coddled dictators’.
When one discusses numbers in the millions a sense of precision can be lost. I live here; I have a general sense of what civil society organizations do. I have no idea, however, where even a reduced figure of $20 million is being expended. Though I don’t know who does or does not receive US aid, there are good organizations doing good work. $20 million is a staggering sum; add it up here and there and surely it can be found. It would be a fair question to research, though: However defined, does the investment result in $20 million of ‘good’?
This discussion is interesting enough, but the opening thought begged a look at priorities. A $5 million reduction suggests the Obama administration is less interested in the promotion of democracy than his predecessor. ‘Less interested’ is found to be a matter of degree, however, when the rest of US government aid to Egypt is considered:
$20 million – promotion of democracy
$35 million – education ($10 million of which is for Egyptians studying in the US)
$250 million – economic aid
$1.3 billion – military aid
Suddenly, $5 million becomes a drop in the bucket.
Egypt solidified its status as a close ally of the US with the signings of the Camp David accords, resulting in the reception of such aid packages every year thereafter. Since that time Egypt has fought no wars, with Israel or anyone else; why is this aid necessary?
While the Obama administration has been accused in the US as favoring Arab interests over Israeli, longstanding American policy, Obama’s rhetoric notwithstanding, has given Israel almost free reign to extend its will in the Palestinian territories. Those who push the envelope, however, suggesting Israel to be America’s 51st state, or more cynically, America’s boss, do not realize the significance of this military aid.
A strong Egyptian military is a necessary counterbalance to the weight of Israeli forces. Both are bankrolled by the US, of course, but if there was not a readiness in Cairo to engage in military combat, Israel would have to pay no attention whatsoever to international (including US) cries for a just settlement of the Palestinian issue. US military aid to Egypt maintains at least a semblance of regional balance of power.
Returning to cynicism, however, there can be another deduction from the breakdown of US aid to Egypt. Where are US priorities? Promotion of democracy? Yes. Education and economics? Yes.
Stability of a regional player? Absolutely. The US maintains genuine interest in political reform and expansion of freedoms. Why else would it invest millions of dollars otherwise available to domestic interests? Cynicism may respond that when differentiation is lost in the understanding of ‘millions and billions’, even the drop in the bucket can appear as a sizeable investment. This number can be paraded to US voters who view America as the city upon a hill with missionary mandate to make the world safe for democracy. At the same time, the other (larger) number can assure the establishment that such idealism will only go so far.
I wish never to surrender to cynicism. Accounting, however, is another matter. As an idealistic American, I do not wish to believe our pangs for worldwide freedom are insincere. A brief look at our foreign policy, however, makes hopeful belief difficult. How do idealism and the pursuit of national interests mix in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen? The world is a complex place, and realpolitik is the mastery of complexity.
If, however, these international engagements have been completely devoid of pure motivation underneath its justifying rhetoric, faith in our system, this great experiment, is severely tested. Let us then surrender to the ways of the world, the quest for empire, and ultimately, a few pages in the textbook of history for the coming centuries.
No, America is good. I will hold this like a tenet of faith. When faith is measured, though, will it be found to equal $20 million? Slightly more (if adding in education funding), or slightly less (after accounting for inefficiency and corruption)?
What does this mean for Egypt? I’m sure this is not a revelation to experts in the field who have followed US-Egyptian relations for years, but it can be disheartening for the idealistic neophyte wishing good for all. America does care (I trust) for the gradual political reform of Egypt, but it cares far more deeply for the preservation of the existing state of affairs. President Mubarak is aging, there is no clear successor, and no viable opposition. The only candidate currently attracting attention (legitimately mobilizing a popular longing for change) is constitutionally bound from running for president unless he joins an existing political party, which he has stated he will not do. What is coming next?
There is no need for fear, or hope. The ruling system stems from the power of the military, whose strongest ally is the US government. A radical departure from the status quo is highly unlikely.
Simply balance the checkbook and see.