If the recent media coverage of the Middle East has taught the American public one thing, it’s this: All journalists are, evidently, also qualified Egyptologists.
So trust me when I tell you that after nearly a day of intermittent research on the Internet, I came across only a single criterion that foreign nations must meet to receive aid from the United States: They just have to ask. They don’t even have to ask nicely.
Actually, we began bribing the Egyptian dictatorship — which is pronounced “presidency” in Arabic — with about $2 billion yearly beginning in the late ‘70s. The funding has helped Egyptians break the habit of launching wars they couldn’t win and saved the Israeli army the hassle of sending tanks to exurbs of Cairo every few years.
What the dollars did not seem to do is help foster any more liberalism; the money did not dissuade the Egyptian state-run media from fomenting anti-Western conspiracies and hatred, nor did it quell radicalism, and most consequentially, it did not stem the growing poverty in the nation.
Most of our funding is apparently being used to maintain an impressive modern military force that is ready to defend the Egyptian homeland from Cypriot pirates and Coptic separatists — both of which I believe I just made up and pose an existential threat to Egypt that equals anything in the real world.
We experts use words such as “fomenting” and understand that meddling in the politics of other nations is typically a disaster — but only because these nations are disasters to begin with. Not to be jejune (which is French for “stupid American”), but our ancestors have been trying to get away from Egyptians since they had a thriving construction sector for a very good reason.
So what do we do? “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is a famous American axiom. And shouldn’t our money come with the promise to be better?
At a news conference in Cairo a few years ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained to locals that though we here are unwavering proponents of human rights, “it is important to continue our work and our friendship with these countries. And the position of the administration is that as an example the foreign military financing that’s in the budget should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position.”
In other words, we can means-test citizens but not foreign dictators who are on welfare. Must be a swell. Imagine, though, if we had “nudged” Egypt a bit more during the past 30 years. Or tethered our billions to some expectation that basic human rights would be honored or that the nation would embark on some democratic reform efforts? Surely the transition from authoritarian regime to democracy to radical theocracy would be going a lot more smoothly.
Cutting foreign aid is a political nonstarter, of course. But how about we start small? Maybe ending the second world war and bringing our boys home from Japan? Maybe reassessing how we divvy up the help?
Rather than abandon allies who share our principles and who face growing threats from nations such as Iran, why not use Israel’s political and capitalistic system as a benchmark? You’re welcome to our aid if you can match Israel’s political and economic freedoms. How many countries would qualify?
Then again, this self-appointed Orientalist believes in only one truism regarding the Middle East: We have no clue what we’re doing or what’s going to happen. What we do know is it’s going to get ugly, and lots of irritated gentlemen will be burning stuff and blaming Americans. But if we insist on getting involved, let’s start making those greenbacks work for us.