From Cairo to Kiev: The waning of US influence

The administration is in a difficult position these days. In the Middle East, it has ceded a hitherto uncontested presence four decades after Anwar Sadat ended Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union. Similarly, the administration finds itself short on options in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine.  In both cases, the administration would be wise to study context and history.

Ukraine is not just another former Soviet republic. Its ties to Russia date back to the founding of Kiev in the ninth century. Christianity was introduced in Kiev before it spread to the rest of the realm. For the centuries that followed, Kiev was passed between multiple empires until it was ceded to Russia in the seventeenth century. Crimea was Russian until half a century ago, when it was ceded to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with tsarist Russia. The Ukrainian story is still unfolding but it is unlikely that Russia will allow the U.S. more than a face-saving resolution to the stand-off between them.

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Ukrainians will likely also note the United States record in the Middle East. The rush to support the ‘Arab Spring’  in the hope of bolstering democratic transformation and the fight against terror produced opposite results.  Libya and Syria became Al Qaeda enclaves, while Egypt was prodded into a discreditable short-lived Moslem Brotherhood rule that demonstrably failed on every count.

The administration’s current policy with regard to Egypt in particular, is one more example of a foreign policy that is at odds with strategic goals.

Following the 1973 war, the U.S. brokered the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and the resulting aid offered to both countries paved the way for the 40-year strategic relationship with Egypt and underpinned the lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.

The U.S. relationship with Egypt developed well beyond granting aid-for-peace as it were. Its enduring nature is testimony to the mutual benefits to both countries. It included joint military exercises, economic cooperation and trade, in addition to granting the U.S. an uncontested foothold in the region.

Military and intelligence cooperation were established and strengthened, in particular with regard to the war on terror. The U.S. was granted expedited transit through the Suez Canal for American warships and over-flight rights for its aircraft.  Billions flowed to Egypt in the form of economic assistance and as its economy grew, Egypt became the US’s fourth largest trading partner.

These days however, that relationship is being tested.

In the fall of 2013, the US suspended military aid. It has been close to a year now that the Egyptian army has gone without new military equipment or spare parts for its existing arsenal. At a time when Egypt most needed to step up its readiness in its current war on terror, in particular in the Sinai, the supply of Apache helicopters was interrupted. At this point, the need to reduce Egypt’s dependence on U.S. military supplies became clear.

It should come as no surprise therefore, that Egypt is now turning to Russia to diversify its sources of defense equipment. While making it clear that the relationship with Russia did not mean an end to the relationship with the U.S., a gradual and increasing shift seems inevitable. Over the next few years there is bound to be a gradual reallocation in favor of non-U.S. military supplies. This is not a luxury. Egypt is in its most serious war on terror and cannot afford to be let down as it has been in the past months.

The current disconnect between the two countries can only undermine the U.S.’s hitherto unique position in the region as well as cooperation on issues such as regional peace and the war on terror.

There was a time when the U.S. relied on a trusted triangle in the region; Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While the Middle East has never lacked for problems, America had allies who could be relied upon to keep any mounting problems from consuming the region  

If old strategic alliances can be so easily abandoned, it is unlikely that the Unites States will be able to score any lasting foreign policy triumphs at Russia’s very doorstep. The Administration needs neither force nor forceful rhetoric. It just needs a more judicious choice of partners and preserving the goodwill so carefully developed over past decades.

Khayat is founder and chairwoman of an asset management company based in Egypt. She is also head of the economic committee of the Free Egyptians Party, a political party founded after the 2011 revolution.