Ordinarily, the proposed sale of another 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks to Egypt – above and beyond the more than 1,000 Egypt already has – wouldn’t necessarily raise eyebrows. Egypt has been an arms client of the US for decades now, and has one of the biggest M1A1 inventories in the world today. Do another ten dozen make that big a difference?
Actually, they do. Jonathan Tobin points out, for one thing, that since the last such tank order, Egypt has undergone a revolution and regime change. The US-friendly Mubarak government is no longer in power. We may rejoice that that regime’s excesses are a thing of the past, but its demise removes the main condition for the automatic approval of major arms deals: a demonstrably stable, friendly government whose policies are consonant with American priorities.
The signs about Egypt’s direction may not be uniformly negative, but the point is, we don’t know where Egypt is headed. We won’t know that until a national election is held, at the very least. If a new government can only be formed by a coalition that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, then we should not be beefing up Egypt’s military, period.
Conventional thinking at State and Defense would emphasize the importance of keeping our hand in with Egypt by continuing to be a source of arms. A conventional fear in this regard would be that if we cut Egypt off, the Egyptians will turn to others for their needs (very likely Russia or China, or both). But if we believe the only way to retain influence with Egypt is to sell her whatever arms she asks for, then we have already assumed an untenable position: one in which we fear a negative result rather than pursuing a positive one.
Unfortunately, that’s the overall character of the Obama policy in the Middle East, and there appears to be no prospect of a course change. The Egyptian tank deal has been sent to Congress at a time when the US has no meaningful, articulated policy for the region, but merely reacts endlessly to new situations, based on contingent, one-time principles. From this shifting position, we are far more likely to be exploited by Egyptian governments, for whatever they can get out of us, than to exert positive influence over them.
The incidents are mounting up. Israel is naturally concerned about the Abrams tank deal for Egypt, in part because Saudi Arabia is arming up even beyond the level of the historic $60 billion deal concluded with the US in 2010. The Saudis are pursuing another $30 billion in arms purchases from the US, and have recently been approved for the purchase of 200 Leopard tanks from Germany.
Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia already has a lot of tanks relative to any potential defense scenario. The $30 billion in naval and missile-defense system purchases from the US makes sense for the purpose of strengthening Saudi defenses against Iran, but the Saudis aren’t going to fight tank battles against the Iranians. There is no scenario in which that would happen, and the Iranians aren’t arming up for it in any case. But Egypt and Saudi Arabia both have reason to contemplate deploying force in the Levant – in Lebanon or Israel (or both) – and the Saudis already have given thought to doing so.
Besides worrying about what Egypt and Saudi Arabia want with hundreds of new tanks, Israel must be concerned about the trend of US policy in other areas. One of those is the esoteric realm of Israeli maritime claims, in which American diplomacy has been gratuitously – bizarrely – unprofessional.
Israel and Lebanon are currently working to establish the boundary of their respective economic exclusion zones (EEZs), a particularly urgent labor for them because of the oil and gas discoveries off their coast. Turkey and Syria, as well as Syria’s Russian patrons, have claimed equities in this process; Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, claim an equity as part of the Lebanese government. Hezbollah and Iran would like to deny Israel as much as possible. It’s a major regional issue with bad guys posturing all around it.
But US authorities, instead of supporting Israel on principle and reserving judgment until all claims are formally stated, have already endorsed the claim articulated by Lebanon, even before Israel’s EEZ claim was finalized and forwarded to the UN – and in spite of Lebanon’s refusal to negotiate directly with Israel. There can be no excuse for such a diplomatic faux pas where an ally is concerned; what you do with allies, in a situation like this, is refrain from prejudicing their affairs in public and see what you can work out in private.
The US diplomat working the issue, Frederic Hof, has reportedly compounded this error with his justification for siding with Lebanon:
A senior administration official told Haaretz that Hof’s main goal was to prevent the border from becoming a source of tension between Israel and Lebanon, which could give Hezbollah a pretext for targeting Israeli gas installations.
By all means, let’s align our policy with Hezbollah’s so the terrorists won’t launch attacks. Signs of pusillanimity like this are why “Assad supporters” felt free to attack the US embassy in Damascus today. They are why observers fear the Obama administration has caved to the demands of both Russia and Turkey in approaching the deal to site a NATO missile-defense radar in Turkey. And they are why leading from behind can’t work: because to lead at all, you need vision and a plan, not fear and reaction.