McManus: U.S. learns it can't buy influence in the Mideast

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The Arab Spring may not have succeeded in bringing democracy to the Middle East. But it has provided powerful evidence of a different phenomenon: the illusion of U.S. influence over governments we once considered our clients.

Take Egypt. Before 2011, the Bush and Obama administrations tried to nudge the autocratic Hosni Mubarak toward democracy; Mubarak ignored the advice. Last year, the Obama administration pleaded (gently) with the freely elected Mohamed Morsi to make his Muslim Brotherhood government more inclusive; Morsi ignored the advice. Now Egypt's armed forces have seized power and the United States is begging Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi to refrain from cracking down too hard, which he ignored with massacres in the streets. Whatever happened to our leverage as a superpower?

If the United States could be expected to have influence over any institution in the Arab world, it would be the government of Egypt, which collects $1.6 billion a year in American aid. But two factors have diminished the leverage that the United States once gained by doling out foreign aid: less money and more competition.

First, $1.6 billion doesn't buy what it used to. U.S. aid to Egypt has been shrinking for most of Sisi's career. Adjusted for inflation, this year's $1.6 billion is about one-third as much as the United States spent on Egypt aid in 1986.

Aid is drop in bucket

The military portion of that annual aid, $1.3 billion, goes mostly to buying aircraft and tanks made in U.S. factories; the nonmilitary portion, $250 million, is little more than a drop in the bucket for Egypt's sprawling economy.

And other powers have stepped in to fill the breach. Last month, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait announced that they were rushing $12 billion in economic aid to Egypt to help the military regime stabilize the economy. If foreign aid creates leverage, the sheikdoms' $12 billion trumps our $1.6 billion handily.

Besides, foreign influence in countries struggling toward democracy is a double-edged sword. The Obama administration has managed to alienate both sides in Egypt's political battle; the Muslim Brotherhood thinks the United States plotted to undermine it, and the military and its secular supporters say the United States is being too hard on Sisi now. Appearing to bow to U.S. wishes won't help Sisi maintain his sky-high popularity.

In any case, the stakes for Egyptians are too high for U.S. advice to count for much. "We're a sideshow," notes Steven A. Cook, an Egypt scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you're an Egyptian leader, one of your best political strategies right now is to stick it to Washington."

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Email: doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.