This week’s coup in Egypt leaves President Obama’s administration in an awkward position. Although the State Department has insisted it remained neutral in the dispute, American taxpayers have been supporting the Egyptian armed forces since 1948 with more than $70 billion in military and economic aid. A further $1.3 billion of military aid is budgeted for next year.

Obama has now instructed officials to review American aid commitments to Egypt. There is a delicate balancing act to be played here. Neither Obama nor the State Department called yesterday’s events a ‘coup’ because there are legal implications restricting U.S. aid to countries where an elected head of state is overthrown by a military coup.

These events are challenging a long-held consensus in the Obama administration that American aid can be used to leverage influence and power. That thinking has also shaped the belated decision by Obama to back Syrian rebels with financial and military aid. The current thinking is that U.S. aid will undercut jihadist elements by empowering their secular nationalist counterparts. This is misplaced idealism.

The power vacuum left by a president who has concluded the Middle East is beyond American national interests has empowered the very reactionaries the administration of George W. Bush spent several years unravelling. American influence is now so vanquished that Obama has surrendered almost all of its international leverage.

Forget events in Egypt or Syria, so decayed is American power under Obama that even the best efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry have failed to deliver Edward Snowden to justice. Beijing and Moscow, meanwhile, wear mirthful grins while reiterating hollow commitments to diplomatic protocol.

As the crisis in Egypt intensified White House officials liaised with both Mohammed Mursi and army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Both discounted American counsel to resolve the tension through diplomacy. Mursi instead stamped his feet with the kind of defiant intemperance that evoked memories of Violet Elizabeth Bott. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were similarly bullish and rolled their tanks through the streets of Cairo.

The threat of cuts in military aid to Egypt have not concerned the SCAF because what Egypt needs now is liquidity for its central bank. The United States has offered some debt relief, but it is the Saudis and Qataris who have pledged to pump several billion into the Egyptian banking system.

In Syria, too, the misguided notion of arming the opposition misunderstands the limits of American power. There was a time when Syrians pleaded for American intervention when, more than two years ago demonstrators called for the imposition of a no fly zone. Obama dithered. In his absence the Gulf states began arming their Sunni counterparts and a sectarian war has ensued. Speak to rebels now and the American officer of support is dismissed with blithe indifference. They already have a steady flow of men, money, and munitions from states far less concerned with the rise of radical Salafism than those in the West.

It need not have come to this for the Obama administration. Anyone wanting to understand the limits of geopolitical leverage achieved through aid programmes alone need only have looked at America’s relationship with Pakistan. It was long thought that Pakistani assistance in the War on Terror after 9/11 could be secured through the provision of generous aid packages.

The difficulties in the American-Pakistani relationship are barely worth reiterating. But when it emerged that a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, had helped the CIA locate Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, the United States limited itself to threatening only financial penalties if Pakistan arrested him. They proceeded anyway and sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail, prompting the United States to cut aid to Pakistan by just $33 million – $1 million for each year of his sentence. The limits of such an approach should have already been clear given that a year earlier the Obama administration announced cuts of more than $800 million in military and economic aid to Pakistan to underscore their displeasure with the relationship.

Wednesday’s coup only further underscores America’s vanishing influence in the Middle East (and the world more generally) by an administration limiting itself to pecuniary diplomacy alone. Cuts in aid and financial support are relatively easy to absorb. All this neuters the advantage of America power – and that is its projection of power itself.

Tags: Egypt, US politics