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Stop Dithering Over Military Aid to Egypt

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The Obama administration's effort to pretend that the military takeover in Egypt wasn't a "coup" was never credible. Now that hundreds of regime opponents have been murdered in the streets of Cairo -- in many cases with U.S.-supplied weaponry -- it is unconscionable. President Obama's announcement this morning that he will cancel scheduled military exercises with Egypt while leaving aid untouched is unacceptable. U.S military aid must end -- now. Stopping aid won't bring back the dead, or have any impact on the Egyptian military's behavior in the short-term. But it is the right thing to do, and it could have a longer-term impact if it brings an end to the decades-long, misguided U.S. policy of arming dictatorships in the name of "stability."

Since the end of World War II, the twisted rationale for U.S. assistance and weapons sales to dozens of repressive regimes has been grounded in two related myths. The first is that the alleged alternative -- whether a communist, or nationalist, or Islamist government -- would be worse than what Reagan administration official Jeane Kirkpatrick famously described as rule by "authoritarian," pro-Western regimes that she claimed were easier to reform. Her assertion has since been disproven by developments like the largely peaceful transition from communism to democracy in East and Central Europe and the persistence of repressive governments in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and for the moment at least, in Egypt. The truth is that every undemocratic regime has its own vulnerabilities, and each opposition movement has its own dynamics. There is no "acceptable" form of dictatorship.

The second myth that has undergirded a policy of arming dictators has been the notion that a military relationship provides the United States with leverage it would not otherwise have -- leverage to moderate repressive behavior and gradually nudge the recipient state towards democracy and respect for human rights. This has always been a questionable proposition, and the killings in Cairo have left it in tatters. According to Gordon Lubold of Foreign Policy magazine's "Situation Report," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken to Egyptian General Abel Fattah Al-Sisi fifteen times in the past few weeks with no discernible effect on his regime's behavior. Marc Lynch elaborates on the futility of these efforts and the need to cut ties with the military regime in Egypt in his piece today on the Foreign Policy web site.

Egypt is not the only place where the "arms to dictators" approach has been employed. Bahrain -- with help from Saudi Arabia -- has violently repressed the democracy movement there. This behavior has prompted criticism from Washington as well as some debate over what types of weaponry to ship to the Bahraini regime, but the overriding point is that U.S. arms and training continue to flow. This too must stop.

And the examples don't end there. A June 2012 report by the Center for Public Integrity documented U.S. arms transfers to ten countries that its own State Department had cited for major human rights abuses. A full cross check between the State Department's annual human rights document with reports on U.S. arms transfers would reveal many other examples.

Stopping military aid to Egypt should be a first step in undermining the myth that supplying arms to repressive regimes is a road to stability and reform. And the Obama administration should act accordingly.