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Why Is U.S. Cozying Up to Egypt?

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Egypt on Sunday to renew the “strategic dialogue” between the countries that was cut off in 2009. From the standpoint of long-term U.S. national security interests, the renewal is a mistake.

Leave aside Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s bad and worsening record on human rights and the trumped up convictions of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and rank-and-file. Forget the tragic message that the short-lived American support for Egyptian democracy is now thoroughly dead.

Egypt's Revolution

What’s really troubling about the U.S.’s cozying up to Sisi is that it robs the American side of any leverage it might have with Egypt to pursue regional security goals, such as the creation of a stable Sunni coalition to defeat Islamic State. Why should Sisi do anything the U.S. asks for if the U.S. is busy claiming the relationship is already strong?

Start with the deep strategic interests. For Egypt, the relationship with the U.S. has clear goals. Egypt wants military aid, which was renewed this year in the teeth of a statute that prohibits U.S. arms aid to countries that have undergone a military coup. The Egyptian military, from which Sisi springs, is not only the most powerful institution in Egyptian society. It’s the only powerful institution left, after its defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. The army’s special privileges are facilitated and enhanced by $1 billion plus in annual U.S. military aid.

Beyond the receipt of aid, Egypt wants the U.S. to ask nothing of it. Egypt’s cold peace with Israel has been sustained since the Camp David Accords were signed, back when I was 8 years old. It requires no U.S. pressure or inducement for Egypt to avoid fighting Israel. Indeed, Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a common enemy in the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot. Sisi’s primary hope is that the U.S. will stop giving him a hard time about the methods he’s using to repress the Brotherhood. The less talk of human rights, the better.

What the U.S. wants from Egypt is a bit harder to pin down. In the broadest sense, the U.S. national security interest in the Middle East right now is to restore some modicum of stability. George W. Bush’s presidency was devoted to disrupting the stability that had been the traditional American regional interest since the Cold War; now the U.S. would badly like to put the genie back in the bottle.

How can Egypt contribute to that goal? The most basic way, of course, is by the regime becoming stable. Sisi is gambling that arrests, sham trials and some executions will achieve that goal. There’s reason to doubt that he’s correct, but for the moment let’s assume he knows his (repressive) business. The point is that the U.S. shouldn’t have to make any concessions to Sisi in order to encourage him to make Egypt stable -- because stability is already in Sisi’s interests.

Egypt could potentially take a leading role in helping to achieve stability in neighboring Libya, where the power vacuum presents an attractive opportunity for Islamic State. Sisi for the moment wants to steer clear of the Libyan morass, because neither he nor anyone else has a clear sense of how to impose order there. If the U.S. wanted Egypt to take a stand, and even send peacekeeping troops, it would need leverage to do so. Now that the U.S. has shown that it wants to fund Sisi, and that it’s eager to develop closer relations, it’s losing the leverage it might otherwise have had to pressure Egypt on Libya.

Further afield, the U.S. has a pressing national security interest in defeating Islamic State. That will take Sunni Arab ground troops -- and the question is who will provide them. The Saudis aren’t ever going to send an army of their own against Islamic State. But the Saudis might foot the bill if they became convinced that the Sunni militant group was a threat to their own claim of Islamic legitimacy. They would need soldiers from elsewhere to fight on their behalf -- and those troops might conceivably be Egyptian. Indeed, the last Arab League summit saw discussion of a collaborative Sunni military force.

Egypt could be expected to participate in the fight against Islamic State only if it had a strong external motive to do so. Money won’t be enough. U.S. approbation and support might be -- if it were otherwise being withheld. Otherwise, it’s not clear what Sisi stands to gain from risking Islamic State retaliation within Egypt.

To be fair, Barack Obama’s administration could argue that getting closer to Sisi will create mutual trust and encourage future cooperation. Don’t believe it. Sisi knows perfectly well that the Obama administration would’ve worked with a successful Muslim Brotherhood government, and that the Americans are upset by his heavy-handed human-rights violations.

Sisi is not a man given to sentimental friendships or allegiances, having come to power after the Muslim Brotherhood purged his predecessor as commander of the Egyptian military. He’s already shown in his rise that he respects power, not loyalty. The U.S. should lend him legitimacy sparingly, if at all.

After the failures of liberal idealism, there’s no disputing that the U.S. will now pursue a realist Middle East policy. That kind of realism requires cold-eyed incentives, not relationship building.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net