The Cable

Former Obama Admin Officials Turn on U.S. Egypt Policy

As the slaughter of antigovernment protesters in Egypt continues, a string of first-term State Department officials are now distancing themselves from President Obama's policies and refuting his reluctance to cut off military aid to Egypt's generals.

With injuries in the thousands and the official death toll nearing 700, Egypt's military leadership is showing no signs of abating, despite repeated demands by the White House to end the violent crackdown. Thus far, President Obama has cancelled next month's joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt and postponed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, but former officials say those moves don't go nearly far enough.

"The situation in Egypt keeps getting worse, and Egyptian government actions keep running contrary to what the U.S. is calling for publicly and privately," said Amy Hawthorne, who left the State Department in December as Foggy Bottom's Egypt country coordinator. Hawthorne said the administration has waited too long to suspend military aid to the government. "Continuing this kind of business-as-usual approach implicates the U.S., in a way, in whatever is going on in Egypt, and could put us in a position pretty soon where we might be contorting ourselves to accept whatever repressive new political reality the Egyptian leadership is trying to create," she said.

Hawthorne is by no means alone. Tamara Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during Obama's first term, says Obama's refusal to call the military's actions a coup has become indefensible. "I think it's time for the United States to recognize that what we have here is the restoration of a military dictatorship in Cairo," said Wittes, now at the Brookings Institution. "That means that the United States needs to call these events what they are - under American law it needs to suspend assistance to the Egyptian government because this was a military coup and it is a military regime."

Piling on, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley addressed the administration's coup policy in a radio interview on Friday. "Obviously, I think it was a military coup. I think the United States should call it that," he told Democracy Now.

Inside the State Department, former officials tell The Cable the anxiety over the absence of a coherent policy is well known. "The worker bees are frustrated," said a former State Department official, referring to employees at the bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs, Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Counterterrorism. "Everyone knows it's a coup. They recognize the reasons why we wouldn't call it a coup, but they also see the hypocrisy."

Another former department official recalled a contingency planning meeting in the Spring of 2012 in which officials discussed a number of hypothetical U.S. responses to troubling actions by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "Somebody raised the idea of cutting off military aid and it was roundly rejected," said the source. "The thinking was that we need to reserve such a step for something really huge, like a military coup. And everyone was like, ‘yeah, it would take a coup.'"

At a Tuesday briefing, reporters again questioned the State Department on its refusal to call the military overthrow a coup. "Does anyone in this building feel that perhaps it was a mistake not to call what happened in Egypt a coup?" asked a reporter.

"We don't feel that - no," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "I'm not doing a retrospective, and our position is the same."

"Obviously, things are volatile," Psaki continued. "Obviously, that's why the secretary, the president of the United States, people around the world are focused on taking every step we can possibly take to return to a stable path. That's our focus. We evaluate every single day, we review every day, what steps that can be taken, whether that's aid, whether that's new constructive ideas, whether that's calls, whether that's visits."

In any case, as the death toll climbs higher in Egypt, criticisms from former administration officials and members of Congress will only intensify pressure on the White House to get tough with Egypt's generals, even if that means sacrificing America's main source of influence in the country.

The Cable

Rand Slams Congress for Funding Egypt's Generals: 'How Does Your Conscience Feel Now?'

Sen. Rand Paul is hammering his fellow senators for keeping billions in financial aid flowing to Egypt's military -- even as Cairo's security forces massacre anti-government activists. 

"This is something that those who voted in Congress are going to have to live with," Paul told The Cable on Thursday. "The question is: How does their conscience feel now as they see photographs of tanks rolling over Egyptian civilians?"

As the official Egyptian death toll climbs to 638, the legislation the Kentucky libertarian is referring to was an amendment to suspend aid to Egypt until the country holds free and fair elections. Two weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats rejected it by an overwhelming 86-13 vote -- and top lawmakers in both parties protested it loudly. 

"This amendment may be good politics, but it is bad policy," Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time. 

"It would be a terrific mistake for the United States to send a message to Egypt: you're on your own," Republican Senator John McCain added back then. "I urge my colleagues to vote to table the Paul amendment."

The vote has already come back to haunt some lawmakers, such as McCain, who is now advocating a cancellation of aid to Egypt and criticizing White House policies as a "colossal failure."

"Congress is way out of touch on this issue," said Paul. "These people who believe in projecting American power, really believe in projecting American weakness. They don't want us to respond to words with actions or obey our own laws."

Earlier today, President Obama announced the cancellation of a joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt, but did not cut off the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. provides to the country. "While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back," Obama said.

Paul called the decision a cop out. "Too little too late," he said. "If he wants to send a message to the military, tell them they're not getting anymore planes. Tell them they're not getting any more tanks."

Defenders of U.S. military aid to Egypt, such as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, say the U.S. can't afford to lose its influence in Egypt, the largest country in the Arab World and a neighbor to U.S. ally Israel. Others have warned that Paul's desires to disengage with the world will make the U.S. more vulnerable, a charge Paul disputes.

"This mindset that if you don't give people money and weapons, then you're not engaged is bizarre," he said. "I want to engage with the world, I just don't want to be engaged in battle."

"For those who think more weapons is engaging us with the Egyptian people, ask an Egyptian," he continued.  "When you're protesting in the streets and you're run over by an American tank, you're not going to be appreciative of American engagement."