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

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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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Holli, Chaney

November 13, 2003 |
The Bush administration is trying to sell the disastrous war in Iraq to the American public as a vehicle for promoting democracy in the Middle East. This approach is misbegotten, especially given the vehicle the United States has chosen to promulgate democratic institutions -- the Iraqi Governing Council.

March 01 2011 at 8:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Marrs& Terry

While giving money to create schools and jobs sonds good the only thing it does is create a foriegn economy whose own currency is devalued because we are willing to pay higher wages(which is still low by our standards) to complete projects that their own government should be doing as for the education portion can we really wish our system of education on anybody

February 25 2011 at 4:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When it comes to military equipment given to foreign countries, much of it is obsolete equipment that we have replaced with newer versions. In addition the full book value of that equipment is then taken when the amount we give to a nation is reported. What needs to be watched and watched closely is cash given to a country since that money finds it way back to the politicians in Washington who sit on the committees that approve it in the first place. Not to mention the Swiss bank accounts of those leaders we give it to. If you think I am kidding it's estimated Mubarak has a net worth of $7 billion dollars. He didn't get it herding camels did he?

February 07 2011 at 3:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It seems to me that the mega billions (trillions) spent in foreign aid have been used in part to hurt us. Why not withhold all foreign aid and let the public decide if any requests are worthy. Let the countries ASK for help. One of the most recent examples of poor judgement and application of funding is Haiti. There is still the same fraud and mishandling of money and give me a good reason "Baby Doc" Duvalier is back. He wants the money.
Also, if foreign aid is only 1% of our budget, and defense 20%, how is it that these POOR countries are able to have such advanced militaries and such a povery ridden public

February 05 2011 at 3:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The people of Egypt have been extremely patient with a repressive government. I recalled befriending an Egyptian in 1981 while living in Canada and he expressed all the frustrations of the majority of his people, which is the cause of this crisis, well the people have reached the end of the rope. Israel needs to take note because they and their hardliner policies are part of that frustration. The world has become a global village, its time to put aside the religious, ethnic, cultural, race, prejudices that plague our nations. LIVE AND LET LIVE. LOVE YOUR BROTHER AS YOURSELF, DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU. STOP WASTING LIVES AND MONEY ON WAR.USE YOUR TIME,WISDOM,MONEY,TO BUILD A BETTER WORLD.

February 03 2011 at 10:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is sooo confusing! Who are we supposed to hate; the brutal dictator who is our friend, the muslim brother hood,the regular people (inc. christians) in the streets demanding democratic representation? Everyone looks the same, there are no liberals to speak of or open homosexuals. Why do we even talk about other countries? The world has nothing to do with us!

February 03 2011 at 2:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Is that like the billions spent on Obama and his totally un necessary junckets. Or a major friend in the area which oh by the way controls the Suez canal and the flow of goods our way

Grow up people. This is all moslem overthrow while America sheep wring their hands. We'll be remembered in the same way as the Romans who let their empire crumble

February 03 2011 at 12:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When is it going to be our turn for help? /there are so many people in our country today needing help, and we keep giving money away to other countries. This is getting very ugly.....we pay our taxes and get nothing in return! It's not right!

February 02 2011 at 10:20 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

No taxes for aid to any country. If our government wishes another government to receive humanitarian aid there needs to be an announcement on TV if the taxpayer wants to donate to a charitable organization that works overseas fine, but no tax money should ever be sent to another government for aid, millions get wasted, millions are used on arms instead of aid to those who need it.

February 02 2011 at 1:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Good article, but I disagree with your main point. I would argue that a strong, confident Egyptian military has allowed these protests to be effective. Educated people are important to promote change, but an underfunded military would have suppressed riots out of self preservation, instead of acting as peacekeepers. Secondly, the 25% unemployment rate of youths in Egypt is not so far off from America's numbers. Education and other domestic investments are the end goal of any nation, but those efforts would fail without stability and security, which is exactly what a strong military provides.

February 02 2011 at 11:51 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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