Cutting Aid to Egypt Signals a Big Strategic Shift For Obama

A group of people holding posters with the image of Barack Obama during protests in Egypt

The decision to withdraw military aid to Egypt should be hailed as a victory for a more conscientious and appropriate American grand strategy. For too long, the U.S. has been policing the world with a puffed-up chest. This move is more than a slight, calibrated adjustment, but a signal that President Obama intends to change course entirely. It shifts the emphasis of American foreign policy away from "Do as I say, not as I do" at the point of a gun and towards a more honest, morally defensible, and humble posture.

Indeed, the symbolic power of this move outweighs the on-the-ground Realpolitik results. Some may argue that we cannot afford to lose our leverage with a country's military as important as Egypt's. Indeed, this is an unfortunate side effect of cancelling this deal. However, going through with arms shipments is a mere band-aid solution to the greater crisis of legitimacy in the country and other countries in the region. If the U.S. gets too comfortable with a government that owes its existence to a military coup, we will continue our unfortunate tradition of trampling our own name in the mud.

Obama, for his part, is absolutely right to stay out of the affairs of the Egyptians and take a wait-and-see approach to the situation. The cancelling of the trade of these arms should be seen not as an active move in opposition to the standing government of Egypt but as a sort of "reset" in which all matters are on the table for renegotiation. It is a recognition of the fact that immense political shock has just occurred in Egypt and it is time to tread lightly, rather than blindly assume that the status quo is still the way. It would be hypocritical for the U.S. to ignore the outcome of a fair and free election as being the ultimate legitimating device.

This path that Obama has started down is consonant with the rest of his stated and implied grand strategic approach to international affairs. Ultimately, he is signalling that the U.S. is no longer in the business of international security and that our allies can no longer count on us to blindly deliver security regardless of the particular circumstances. This adjustment, a large step back, sets us on a sustainable path toward the future and allows us more flexibility to ignore crises in which we don't have a stake and intervene where we do. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prove nothing else, it is that the U.S. is bad at judging its own best interests abroad with a "maximalist" approach.

It's time for a "minimalist" approach in which we focus on our strengths, export our culture, and support legitimate democracies everywhere. This isn't to say that military threats have no role in foreign policy. Rather, we should be in complete control of those threats. Giving weapons to others is tantamount to turning over our hard power to others and letting them do what they will, whether we approve or not. This is reckless and counter productive.