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U.S. Spent Billions Arming Egypt; Would Schools and Jobs Have Been Wiser Investments?

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
Upheavals in Egypt and across the Middle East are shaking a major foundation of American foreign policy: the conviction that arms sales and military strength ensure stability.

From Algeria to Yemen, throngs of chronically unemployed youth are upending U.S.-backed regimes heavily armed with American military hardware and expertise. In a region where half the population is under the age of 25 and increasingly desperate for jobs and scarce housing, the United States has provided more than $250 billion worth of weaponry since 1950, vastly overshadowing its investments in education, job creation, housing, democracy and other social needs.

In Cairo, the Egyptian army suggested it would not interfere with Tuesday's planned massive demonstrations and general strike. In a statement, the military said it supported "freedom of expression through peaceful means.''

But the United States, for its decades-long effort to avoid trouble by fortifying Egypt's military at the expense of funding for education, jobs and housing, seemed to be on the wrong side of history. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lamented in a remarkable speech at American University in Cairo in 2005, "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither.''

As Shadi Hamid, a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote this week: "For decades, the United States has prioritized a now clearly illusory stability over American ideals. It appears the administration, slowly, is realizing its mistake -- and that of its predecessors.''

In an opinion essay for Forbes, Hamid added: "Democracy -- with the accountability, popular legitimacy and peaceful resolution of conflict it so often brings -- is the only avenue to long-term stability. Otherwise, authoritarian regimes will appear stable -- until they're not.''
More immediately, there is concern that the massive U.S. investment in Egypt's powerful military may become uncontrollable. A new, more radical civilian regime could abrogate Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and wield its military as a new threat to the region's relative peace. "Somebody in Washington needs to be working seriously on the future security of Israel,'' said John McCreary, former intelligence watch officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "There is no guarantee that an anti-Israel Islamist government will not emerge, in the revolutionary phase of this uprising . . . large scale, conventional warfare with tanks would re-establish itself as the future of warfare'' in the region.

U.S. largesse has made Egypt's military a force to contend with. Last year the United States provided Egypt with $2.6 billion in military hardware and services, including sophisticated anti-ship and anti-tank missiles, fast missile boats and upgrades to Sparrow air-to-air missiles that the Pentagon said would contribute to "political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.'' Of that amount, $1.3 billion was written off as U.S. military aid.

Commercial military sales to Egypt, supervised by the State Department, were expected to reach at least tens of millions of dollars more. In the most recent year reported, 2008, commercial sales of weapons to Egypt came to $121 million.

Last year the United States also gave Egypt $1.5 billion in non-military assistance – of which $1.3 billion was earmarked for "peace, security and stability'' programs including counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and "stabilization'' initiatives. There was also money for "democracy, human rights and governance'' ($25 million) and for education and social and economic development ($210 million).

That ratio of U.S. support -- $2.6 billion in direct military sales and $235 million for democracy, human rights, education and economic development – faithfully reflects long-standing and continuing U.S. strategy.

The central idea was captured in a 2009 remark reportedly made by Gen. David Petraeus, who was then the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, to Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian president was complaining that Iranian agents were working to destabilize Egypt from the inside. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, Petraeus suggested he could help by providing more Patriot missiles and F-16 fighters. Whether Mubarak inquired how missiles and jets could help control political unrest wasn't recorded.

But across the volatile Middle East, U.S. arms sales are accelerating, with a potential new sale pending to Saudi Arabia worth as much as $60 billion. An analysis by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies mentions three key advantages of the sale: securing access to Saudi oil, building up a potential U.S. military partner in the region, and making future Saudi regimes dependent on the U.S. for spare parts and technical assistance for their American weapons systems.

No one suggests that non-military U.S. assistance could cure the ills of the Middle East. But a better balance between military and non-military aid might help in a region under such stress. One major cause of instability is the growing population of those under 25, which according to data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, ranges from 50 percent in Saudi Arabia to 64.9 percent in Yemen, another U.S. military ally challenged by street uprisings.

Despite spending heavily on defense, the region's governments for the most part have failed to provide private-sector jobs for new high school and college graduates. In Egypt, 600,000 of them a year pour into the job market, faster than retirements and job creation can make room for, according to a recent report by the U.N. Development Program. Officially, one in four Egyptian youths is unemployed. Rising food prices, due in part to crops wilting in unusual heat, added to the misery: the price of vegetables doubled in Cairo this fall, according to a UN report.

"Mubarak has gotten $30 billion or $40 billion in U.S. military aid during his time in office, and that could have gone a long way in health, education, agriculture – even if you took only half of it,'' said William Hartung, an arms sales and foreign aid analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. Even at the margins, Hartung said, "if you helped raise living standards and gave people more options, I think the government would have a little more breathing room.''

Yet the imbalance between what the United States spends on foreign aid and military and security aid is anchored in the Obama administration's national security strategy, published last May. It acknowledged that the United States must deal with "the underlying political and economic deficits that foster instability, enable radicalization and extremism and ultimately undermine the ability of governments to manage threats within their borders.'' To deal with these threats, the White House paper said, "We will undertake long-term, sustained efforts to strengthen the capacity of security forces to guarantee internal security . . .''

Accordingly, the administration's proposed 2011 international affairs budget, which finances all foreign operations and foreign aid, including disaster relief, was $58.4 billion. The proposed spending bill for the Defense Department: $708 billion.

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