FPI Bulletin: Responding to Recent Events in Egypt and Libya

September 21, 2012

From FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate and Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

News reports now suggest that last week’s deadly attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was likely orchestrated by an al-Qaeda affiliated group in North Africa—despite the Obama administration’s earlier claims to the contrary.  This serves as a reminder that more than eleven years after 9/11, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups remain a threat to U.S. interests.

The Libya attack—coupled with violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that same day—also signals the need for the United States to see Egypt and Libya through their slow, often difficult, but continuing political transitions.  In Washington, however, the attacks have triggered anxiety and misunderstanding among policymakers and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. 

On the Left, events have exposed the shortfalls of a “photo-op” foreign policy all too eager to take credit for images of toppled dictators, while largely neglecting the less glamorous, but more difficult—and more critical—process of post-dictatorship transition.  On the Right, misguided and reactionary isolationists are using the attacks to justify America’s wholesale disengagement from the region.

For its part, the Obama administration’s Middle East policies, to date, have seemingly favored short-term fixes over securing long-term U.S. interests.  In June 2009, the President stood silently as protestors were beaten and shot in the streets of Iran.  In early 2011, he waited weeks to intervene in Libya as citizens were slaughtered by the Qaddafi regime and its loyalists.  In early 2011, he vacillated as protestors took to the streets to protest in Egypt.  Since February 2011, he has refused to take any meaningful actions to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad despite the deaths of an estimated 20,000 people by his regime.

The truth is that efforts either to double down on the President’s misguided regional approach, or to prematurely wash America’s hands of the Middle East, would harm—not protect—the national security interests of the United States and its partners in the Middle East.  Egypt and Libya show that it is not enough to simply rid nations of brutal dictatorship or tyrants.  Rather, it is critical that the United States play a decisive and ongoing role in helping post-dictatorial states to build representative governments that respect peace with their neighbors, the impartial rule of law. To this end, there are a number of steps the administration and Congress should take.

First, Washington must clearly establish non-negotiable “red lines” that ensure key U.S. interests.  While circumstances differ by country, universal issues should include—but not be limited to—basic human rights for minorities and women, counterterrorism cooperation, and free and fair elections.  For Egypt, this should also include compliance with the peace treaty with Israel.  Too often, the Obama administration has failed to uphold these principles in direct conversations with Cairo.

Egyptian President Morsi’s initial response to violent protests in Cairo sent mixed messages and seemingly fueled the protestors.  As David Schenker and Eric Trager recently wrote, “Washington can tolerate a lot, but it cannot invest in an Egypt that refuses at a minimum to secure American diplomats.  So long as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi administration insist on encouraging Salafists and soccer hooligans to target U.S. interests, the U.S. can and should impose costs for this choice.”

Second, foreign assistance remains a powerful tool at America’s disposal.  The Obama administration should use the power of the purse to shape and influence the choices of these two emerging governments.  That said, recent events underscore the need to dramatically alter how U.S. foreign assistance is distributed to both nations.

Egypt is a top recipient of U.S. foreign assistance.  However, a majority of funding is still appropriated through Foreign Military Financing accounts to Egypt’s military.  For example, the Obama administration requested $1.3 billion in military aid in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, compared to only $250 million in economic aid.  To play a role in shaping Egypt’s future, and ensure U.S. interests are achieved, Washington must recalibrate its civilian and military assistance to ensure that Egypt’s nascent and fragile democratization process moves forward.  Assistance to aid Egypt’s emerging democratic institutions and sluggish economy should become Washington’s priorities.

In Libya, the United States has given roughly $200 million in foreign assistance since 2011.  While the fall of Muammar Qaddafi marked an important victory for the Libyan people and the United States, the country’s subsequent internal instability made clear that the international community neglected to take critical steps to keep the peace and curb extremist elements as a new government in Tripoli struggled to emerge.  The United States, in conjunction with the international community, must empower Libya to sustain and enlarge democratic institutions that respect the impartial rule of law and free speech, expand the training of the Libyan military, cooperatively target irreconcilable terrorist groups, and advise the drafters of the new Libyan constitution as they boldly chart their country’s future.

Third, Congress should use its oversight powers to thoroughly explore and understand how recent attacks in Libya were carried out.  News reports now suggest that warning signs were overlooked in the days prior to the violent attacks.  Congress should work with the administration to review intelligence procedures, and ensure diplomatic security and safety at U.S. facilities in Libya, Egypt, and other countries.

The task ahead will not be easy.  Lawmakers—and the American people—are right to worry about the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  However, the United States must not back down in the face of terrorist attacks and extremists.  The President should make clear that the United States will continue to play a vital and constructive role in the region, and encourage emerging governments in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere to build enduring political institutions that respect individual rights, freedom of expression, and regional security.

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Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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