Since Egypt suffered a coup in July, the White House has been torn about whether to respond by cutting off aid. President Barack Obama moved in that direction by withholding the delivery of military equipment, but the administration has kept troops deployed in a 30-year-old peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai.
That mission deserves scrutiny even more than our financial assistance, especially because an N.C. National Guard unit from near Hickory is involved.
A recent discussion at UNC’s Global Education Center gave me the chance to ask Frank Wisner, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, about the benefits and risks of this mission. He answered: It is “extremely dangerous now that the Egyptian army is pursuing law-and-order operations against Sinai miscreants, but it is very important. It’s a serious confidence builder between Egypt and Israel.”
That certainly was the case when we began this work in 1981. President Carter had just brokered the Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel, combatants in four wars over 25 years, and the terms included having U.S. forces as a buffer. Since then, these countries haven’t fought and even have cooperated in some areas. Washington continues to send troops to the Sinai based on the presumption that Egypt and Israel would fall back on old ways if not for a U.S. presence.
That’s questionable. Egypt and Israel now have been at peace longer than they were at war, and it’s possible that peace has become the new equilibrium. Israel is much more concerned with Iran and Syria today, and internal revolution has focused Egypt inward. No one seems to have an interest in war.
Wisner’s premise that we have an interest in this peace clearly is true. But his conclusion that it is up to us to maintain that peace ignores three decades of change. At minimum, the evidence needs updating, and it’s just as possible that the U.S. military’s work is done.
Every benefit comes with a cost, and the second part of Wisner’s answer references that cost. This mission has become “extremely dangerous” because of groups he calls “miscreants.” More precisely, the Egyptian government has always struggled to extend its authority into the Sinai and, as revolution has weakened its grip further, armed groups from beyond Egypt seem to have moved in.
Details are scarce, but it is very clear that a serious fight is happening. The tally includes a suicide bombing that reportedly took the lives of six Egyptian soldiers and rocket-propelled grenade attacks that killed another six Egyptian security troops in one instance and three civilians in another.
This is not the fight we sent our troops to mediate, but it’s now the fight that defines war and peace in the Sinai. Wisner called the circumstances “extremely dangerous” because of the risk of our forces getting pulled into the fight just by the happenstance of being there.
Egypt and Israel are on the same side of this fight, a telling measure of how times have changed. When several militants died in a mysterious August explosion, the New York Times pointed to “unnamed Egyptian security officials” who said “that the explosions were the result of an Israeli missile strike … and suggested that the strike had been carried out in coordination with Egypt.”
The bottom line is that we are putting U.S. troops at risk of getting involved in a new fight by being peacekeepers between two countries on the same side of that fight. Wisner’s answer seems inadequate from this viewpoint: It justifies today’s costs on the basis of yesterday’s benefits.
Wisner isn’t responsible for coming up with the final answer, but the same conventional wisdom holds sway over those in Washington who do make the decision. The White House and Congress are right to re-examine the financial assistance we offer Egypt as it whipsaws between revolution and repression. They must also consider the sacrifice we ask of our troops.
North Carolina’s National Guard unit returns from the Sinai this month, and these risks have not yet turned into trouble for them. Still, other American forces will follow, and they depend on us to hold our leaders accountable for these questions.
Matthew Leatherman is a resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina.