WASHINGTON — Pro-coup demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square were treated to a tangible reminder of America's long-standing support for Egypt's military last month when a missile-equipped, U.S.-made Apache helicopter flew low overhead and dropped tiny Egyptian flags to the cheering crowd.
Helicopters may soon become another kind of symbol, this time of decreasing U.S. support, as the Obama administration debates whether to stop next month's scheduled delivery of new Apache AH-64D aircraft, according to a senior U.S. official.
Refusal to send the Apaches, part of an $820 million, 12-aircraft order dating from 2009, would fall far short of the suspension of all U.S. military aid to Egypt — including the crucial spare parts that allow it to maintain its American-made equipment — that some have demanded.
There is little indication that stopping the helicopter shipment will have any more effect on the Egyptian military's conduct than last month's after last week's brutal security force repression of anti-coup protesters, which left more than 600 dead. Egypt already has about three dozen Apaches from previous aid packages.
For now, the administration is playing a balancing game, trying to send tactically sharp messages while preserving influence in an increasingly polarized society, protecting other national security interests in the region and positioning the United States for a long-term strategic relationship.
Obama said Thursday that he ordered his national security team to "assess the implications of actions taken" by Egypt's current rulers and of "further steps that we may take as necessary."
Cancellation of the helicopter shipments would be the first response to that order. Payments on other aid-financed military supplies for Egypt — largely owed to U.S. defense contractors — will soon be due for dispersal. If the military does not figure out a way to stop the violence and move expeditiously along a path to restore civilian government, there may be further cuts to follow.
Many lawmakers continue to back Obama's cautious approach, along with Israel and powerful Persian Gulf nations that oppose ousted president Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and are willing to bail out Egypt's drowning economy.
But even before Wednesday's security force rampage in Cairo, the administration's incremental response to the military's July 3 overthrow and arrest of the democratically elected Morsi had left Obama vulnerable to charges of weakness and moral vacillation. Some charged he was ensuring the long-term instability he has said he is trying to stem in Egypt.
"The failure of the Obama administration to use our influence to shape events in this critical part of the world has only diminished our credibility, limited our influence, and constrained our policy options," Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement Friday. They are part of a growing bipartisan chorus demanding an end to nearly $1.6 billion in annual U.S. assistance to Egypt, $1.3 billion of it used to finance purchases of American military equipment.
The relative lack of U.S. engagement toward crises in both Syria and Egypt may produce the very thing that Obama eschewed in his seminal speech to the Islamic world, delivered in Cairo in 2009, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, Obama's former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and now director of the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution.
In the speech, Obama promised a new beginning in America's relationship with Muslims, based on mutual interest and mutual respect rather than the military might evidenced in Iraq.
Yet as Syria falls into sectarian civil war and Egypt's secular-Islamist divide deepens, Wittes said, "we may indeed see the emergence of a much wider, fiercer threat of violence to the Arab world that will demand a certain type of American engagement that is precisely the opposite of what the president was aiming for."
Thomas Carothers, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cited a different Obama speech, delivered at the State Department in May, 2011 in the midst of the NATO air offensive in Libya. Speaking specifically of the Arab Spring unfolding at the time, Obama said the United States would stand firm in opposition to "the use of violence and repression" in the region.
"There will be times when our short-term interests don't align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region," Obama said. "But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles."
"He was saying 'get on the right side of history,' " Carothers said. "But he didn't really follow through" in the half of the Arab world, including close allies such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, that remains undemocratic and often repressive.
In Egypt, Carothers said, stability and the basic caution of the president have repeatedly prevailed over values-based risk-taking. "U.S. policy toward Egypt has been stuck in deep relationship management mode, whose purpose is to maintain a relationship with whoever's in power," he said. Since the coup, "the military has reached the conclusion they can do anything and they will maintain a relationship with the U.S. government, and so far they're right."