Sens. Lieberman and McCain push for an economic assistance plan for Egypt

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Thursday urged the Obama administration to craft a multi-pronged Egyptian assistance package that includes preferential trade status and greater economic aid.

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The lawmakers warned that a lack of U.S. involvement in building a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt would set a negative precedent that would undermine Washington’s national security interests. They said if that nation’s transition away from autocratic control is not handled properly, it could allow the radical Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to seize power.

Calling Egypt “the heart of the Arab world,” McCain described for a packed room at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington an aid package he hopes the White House will consider.

The U.S. should enact “preferred trade agreements” and “free-trade agreements” with the North African nation to help rev up its economy, the Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member said.

Washington also should take a portion of the $1.3 billion it gives Egypt in military assistance and funnel those funds toward efforts to boost the Egyptian economy, McCain said.

Both senators called on the American private sector to do more by investing in Egypt, with Lieberman calling for a delegation of “high-tech executives” from American firms to meet with officials there.

The senators also suggested the administration should move to work with U.S. and Egyptian allies to relieve some of the nation’s “massive debt.”

But with America facing its own fiscal problems, Lieberman conceded such an aide package “will be a tough sell on the hill.”

He then offered a glimpse of his sales pitch.

“With a relatively small investment, we can bring a moderate Arab revolution to a relatively successful conclusion,” Lieberman said.

Any debt-relief “could be tied to standards of democracy and rule of law,” he added.

McCain and Lieberman recently returned from a visit to Egypt and the revolution-torn region.

During meetings with Egyptian military officials, the U.S. senators said it was apparent Egypt’s generals do not want to rule the nation for very long. Yet, members of the Mubarak opposition groups that drove that regime from power told them they fear moving to free elections too quickly.

Under such a scenario, those groups fear three factions will be organized enough to take power, Lieberman said: the Muslim Brotherhood; remnants of the Mubarak government; or “elements of the interim government” about which they have doubts.

The senators also discussed the ongoing unrest in Libya. They clarified their shared position on Washington giving military hardware to Libyan opposition groups.

McCain said the pair supports a no-fly zone over Libya, but would only urge the White House to get rebel groups military systems “if we determine it’s necessary for them to survive,” McCain said.

Earlier in the day, Lieberman floated the idea of arming rebels with air-defense systems to guard against strikes by regime-controlled fighter jets.

McCain said while some have accused he and Lieberman of “saber rattling,” he opposes placing U.S. ground forces on Libyan soil.

But McCain stuck to his belief that establishing a no-fly zone would not be difficult, dismissing Pentagon officials’ description of a complex and expensive mission.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week it would require two aircraft carriers and air strikes across “a big country” to eliminate Libyan anti-aircraft batteries.

During the Brookings event, McCain called Libya’s fighter jets “old” and the nation’s pilots “inexperienced,” making the establishment of a no-fly zone “fairly easy.”

McCain also said he worries unrest in Bahrain could devolve into “a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

This widespread Middle East volatility has the Obama administration largely “running around putting out fires,” McCain said.

Lieberman said the administration has been slow to find its way at the onset of each conflict.

McCain, Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent, told the forum “this administration has gotten better over the last year” at handling such outbreaks.

But, he noted, eventually White House officials will need to craft a new Middle East “doctrine for this new world.”