U.S. Weapons to Egypt Never Linked to Human Rights

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Egyptian F-16s buzz the pyramids at Giza / Lockheed

Pentagon officials have been delighted at how the Egyptian army is treating its citizens, and hope such conduct continues. Some Americans wish U.S. leaders over the past 30 years had used the weapons the U.S. provided Egypt as a lever to press Cairo to relax its repression, but that has always been a no-go zone. U.S. officials concede they have no idea where this situation is going to end up. Their hope: that the Egyptian army uses its clout to ease Mubarak, a former air force chief, out of power, and uses its power to keep the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood out of power, too.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the $35 billion in military aid Washington has given Egypt since 1979 — the U.S. is providing about $1.5 billion this year, $1.3 billion of which is military (that works out to $3.5 million a day). “The Egyptian army is being subsidized by us, basically, not to fight Israel,” Stephen Pelletiere, a veteran Middle East military analyst at the Army War College, says. That continuing relationship is vital to security in that part of the world. “It would be disastrous for the U.S.,” he adds, “if we lost our association with the Egyptian army.”

From 1950 to 1975, when Cairo was in the Soviet orbit, the U.S. provided the Egyptian military with $373,000 in arms. Cairo paid cash. In the 32 years since Camp David, Egypt has collected more than $35 billion in U.S. weapons — F-4 and F-16 fighters, M-60 and M-1 tanks, Perry and Knox-class frigates — nearly all of it paid for by U.S. taxpayers. They, in fact, pay for about 80 percent of the Egyptian military’s procurement; American arms have supplanted Soviet models as the leading source of Cairo’s weapons.

Some of the investment was dubious. In the immediate wake of Camp David, the Egyptians demanded costly and complicated F-4 fighters instead of less sophisticated planes better-suited to them. “Egypt apparently wanted the F-4,” the Government Accountability Office noted in 1982,”because Israel flew them successfully in the 1973 war and they would be symbolic of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship…Egypt was able to show off the aircraft in its October 1979 military parade.” Along those same lines, Egypt got the right to co-produce up to 1,200 M-1 tanks on its soil, even though doing so drove the cost per tank (largely paid for by the U.S.) from $3.6 million to $5.2 million.

Now Egypt is facing its biggest crisis in decades as the young and jobless take to the streets, increasingly joined by their parents and members of the middle class. The $35 billion in U.S. arms that Washington has basically given the Egyptian military could have been quite a crowbar to push Mubarak to lighten up and relax his growing repression.

Did the U.S. ever use that leverage? It’s fitting that the answer comes from Robert Gates, who has responded to questions on the topic twice while visiting Cairo — once, as defense secretary to George W. Bush, and two years later on behalf of Barak Obama. His answers show consistency from presidency to presidency on the subject, as well as reflecting a visceral disdain for bringing up the sensitive topic with his Egyptian hosts.

“Has the United States given up on the effort to push democracy in this region — and did you, in your meeting with President Mubarak — bring up Egypt’s increasingly aggressive and brutal crackdown on political dissidents here in Egypt?” a reporter asked Gates in April 2007.

“My conversations with President Mubarak were focused strictly on the situation in the region — on the peace process, on Iraq, and on Iran,” Gates responded without elaboration.

Pressed again in May 2009, Gates said that while the U.S. supports human rights, it shouldn’t be made a part of any arms deal between Egypt and the U.S. “The foreign military financing that’s in the budget should be without conditions,” he said. “And that is our sustained position.”

Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who ran U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, agrees. He thinks it makes sense to let the Egyptian military, and Washington’s concern over Cairo’s repression, travel along separate tracks. “From a pure military point of view, you don’t want the military to get mixed in with the politics — that’s the problem we had with Pakistan, where we sanctioned the military because we didn’t like their political decisions, and that came back to bite us because we alienated the military.”

Robert Scales, a retired Army major general, says Pakistan now has a “lost generation” of military officers who missed out on a decade of training at U.S. military schools because Congress decided to punish Islamabad for its nuclear-weapon efforts. “They went from very western to very conservative Islamists in less than a generation,” he says.

Big mistake, these retired U.S. officers say. Especially because the Pakistani military, unlike Egypt’s, is now believed to have more than 100 nuclear weapons.