In the Wake of Turmoil and Bloodshed, Should the U.S. Suspend Aid to Egypt?

President Barack Obama condemned the Egyptian government's use of violent force on protesters but stopped short of suspending $1.5 billion in aid the U.S. provides to Egypt each year. Judy Woodruff asks former U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns and Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch for views on how the U.S. should proceed.


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama today issued his first statement on yesterday's events in Egypt and announced the U.S. is scrapping joint exercises with the Egyptian military next month.

He spoke from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he's vacationing.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces.

We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom or that might makes right.

But, 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.

As a result, this morning, we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month. Going forward, I have asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

Let me say that the Egyptian people deserve better than what we've seen over the last several days. And to the Egyptian people, let me say, the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop. We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect the universal rights of the people. We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully, and condemn the attacks that we've seen by protesters, including on churches.

We believe that the state of emergency should be lifted, that a process of national reconciliation should begin, that all parties need to have a voice in Egypt's future, that the rights of women and religious minorities should be respected, and the commitments must be kept to pursue transparent reforms of the constitution and democratic elections of a parliament and a president.

America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That's a task for the Egyptian people. We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it's tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what's gone wrong.

We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We've been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve. We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That's our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.

I want to be clear that America wants to be a partner in the Egyptian people's pursuit of a better future, and we are guided by our national interest in this longstanding relationship. But our partnership must also advance the principles that we believe in, and that so many Egyptians have sacrificed for these last several years, no matter what party or faction they belong to.

So, America will work with all those in Egypt and around the world who support a future of stability that rests on a foundation of justice and peace and dignity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president stopped short of suspending $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. But is that the right decision, given the ouster of President Morsi last month and yesterday's violence?

For answers, I'm joined by former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns. He's now a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a senior foreign affairs columnist at GlobalPost. And Joe Stork, he is deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

Gentlemen, we thank you both for being here.

Ambassador Burns, to you first. What's your reaction to what the president said?

NICHOLAS BURNS, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Judy, I think the president had to say what he said today, given the horrific, brutal attacks by the Egyptian military on their own people. The president had to condemn them.

He had to distance the United States from the military government in Egypt, which he did. He had to cancel this very important joint exercise. As you mentioned, what he didn't do was sever all relations with the government and he didn't announce that the United States would cut off aid.

And here is the big dilemma for the Obama administration. We have sometimes competing interests both in Egypt and in the wider Middle East. On the one hand, we have to be identified with human rights. That's the kind of country that we are. That's our history. We have to stand up and condemn a government like the government in Cairo when they act in this reprehensible manner.

But, on the other hand, the United States has very important security and economic interests in Egypt. It's the keystone country of the Middle East. The peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the Camp David accords that Jimmy Carter negotiated are critical and are the bedrock of our policy in the entire region. And Egypt has been a real partner of the United States, as you know, in countering terrorism in the region and also in trying to restrain and contain Iran.

There's the dilemma for the president. How far do we go? I think the strategy here, Judy, by the United States government is to use the influence we have to push the military authorities towards some kind of a plan that would give some hope to the Egyptian people, a revised constitution, new elections, and hopefully the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process.

That's why I think they didn't announce the cutoff of aid today and why they hope to use that influence to push the Egyptian government in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Joe Stork, do you think the president struck the right balance today?

JOE STORK, Human Rights Watch: I think he probably did, although I certainly think the question -- aid remains an important part of the picture.

I mean, he took a first step, I would say, in terms of making a very symbolic and visible high-profile decision like he did. But I think one of the problems is I can't tell you today that cutting off the aid or reducing the aid or suspending the aid would make a difference in Egypt today.

So, I mean, if that's part of our calculation, that's part of the reason for doing it in terms of that is improving the situation, I'm not sure it would work. We would just be playing into a dynamic where the Egyptian military currently is riding a wave of popular nationalism and xenophobia that is -- as the president mentioned, is very hostile to...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about -- what we just heard Ambassador Burns say, on the one hand, there has to be a consideration for human rights. On the other hand, the U.S. has serious national interests in Egypt.

JOE STORK: It does, although I don't think that the treaty with Israel and so forth, the things that sort of were the treaty bedrock for the military aid, I don't think that's, frankly, very important.

And I wouldn't hold that up for too much consideration. I think the reason for doing -- taking that further step now would be primarily to further...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean cutting off the aid.

JOE STORK: Cutting off the aid or portions of it would be to even more strongly signal -- distance the United States from the appearance of any complicity with the actions that the military has taken.

I think there might be a further step, though. We're looking at a very, very polarized, dangerously polarized situation, where the facts on the ground are not entirely clear. On the one hand, the scale of the carnage yesterday -- and, in fact, since July 3 -- certainly would suggest there's been a lot of excessive use of force, a lot of unlawful killings by the authorities.

But I think those facts are highly disputed. The perceptions are very different in Egypt, and I think some sort of -- frankly, I think the United States now should work internationally with its allies, but also in the context of the U.N., exercise its role in the Security Council and the Human Rights Council.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask, Ambassador Burns, what about the argument, though, that is out there that even if cutting off military aid right now wouldn't change the behavior of Egypt's leaders, it would at least make a powerful statement about where the U.S. stands, what its principles are with regard to what happened yesterday?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think, Judy, every American administration has to answer the question, do we want to have a foreign policy of protest or a foreign policy where you're really focused on trying to make a difference?

In some ways, it might have been easier for the president to have gone out today and condemned, as he did, what the Egyptian military did, and also say that he was going to take away the aid, because I think there will be congressional pressure towards that end, and a number of American allies, particularly in Europe, are going to want to take that same measure.

But, on the other hand, the United States remains the most influential outsider -- outside country, outside force in the Middle East. We have very important security interests, not only in Egypt, but we certainly do in that peace agreement with Israel. And that's the bedrock concern of the Israelis.

And I think there's an appreciation, Judy, that these Arab revolutions are going to go on and on and on. This is not going to be a short drama. They may be at the end of act one of a five-act play that will go on for a generation. So the calculation by the administration, which I think is right, is that you have to stay in the fight, you have to guard the influence you have, and you have got to use that influence behind the scenes.

And I think you will see that happening. You saw that our secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, called General al-Sisi, the authoritarian leader of Egypt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

NICHOLAS BURNS: And he said the military relationship is at risk. That is a warning to the Egyptian government. If they don't come forward with a plan for political reform, the United States could take the more drastic action in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Joe Stork, we just heard Ambassador Burns say the U.S. is certainly among, if not the most powerful player in the region, and yet we heard the president today say the U.S. can't determine Egypt's future. So what is the influence?

JOE STORK: Well, I think the fact that Chuck Hagel made these 15 or 18 calls to General al-Sisi over the last three weeks -- and we saw the results yesterday -- indicates -- is one indication of the limits of U.S. influence.

Also, you know, the U.S. aid, this $1.5 billion, it's not small change, but on the other hand, it ain't what it used to be in 1979 or 1999, and we're looking at a situation where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait are pouring in funds to support the general. So, it's not as easy a picture and equation as it used to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Burns, so, in a way, you're both saying there are limits to U.S. influence.

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think there are.

I served in Egypt 30 years ago, Judy. We were -- we had much more influence then than we do now, but we still have influence. There's no other country in Europe or in Asia that has more influence than the United States does in Egypt, and for one reason, really. We have had a 30-year relationship with the Egyptian military.

All those senior officers in Egypt have studied in our military schools. They have friendships with American military officers. They have been trained by us, and they use American equipment. That does give us influence, and I think the power of our country does as well.

So I wouldn't minimize that. And I think the strategy we saw today was to try to use that influence, but maybe in a more nuanced way, behind the scenes, not in front of the cameras. I think, Judy, in that sense, this story will play out now over the next few weeks.

But if there are more...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

NICHOLAS BURNS: If there are more manifestations of killings, of direct fire into civilians as -- in the coming weeks as we saw this week, then I think the patience of the United States could and should wear out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Joe Stork, what do you...

JOE STORK: I think we're likely to see that, frankly.

We're looking at security forces that have behaved this way time and time again. I'm afraid we don't see any indication that they're going to suddenly do the right thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so that's what you expect to happen? You expect them not to...

JOE STORK: The situation to worsen.

Yes, I expect there's going to be an escalation. And maybe this has to -- the question of U.S. aid, among many other things, has to remain on the table. There may come a time for that. Maybe because the situation is likely to worsen, you want to keep it on the table.

But I think the key thing now is to work with allies, the Europeans especially, but also other countries, Latin America and so forth, in the U.N. forums to basically surround Egypt diplomatically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Joe Stork, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, thank you.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.