The recent decision by Washington not to express an opinion on whether the Egyptian coup was in fact a coup is sensible, and probably the only decision they could have made. But it shows once again the risks of tying yourself to individuals and regimes that you may hope to influence, but can’t really control.
In this case, it’s clear that the US needs Egypt rather more than Egypt needs the US. Egypt is central to American strategy in the region, and the Egyptian military (who consider they did pretty well to recapture their lost territory in 1973) have no particular interest in starting another conflict with Israel. They are happy to take military aid from the US, but that aid could easily be replaced by aid from the Gulf states if necessary. This means that the US actually has very little leverage over the Egyptian Army, and, if it cuts off aid, it will lose even that which it has.
This is not an unusual state of affairs. Great powers have a habit of assuming that they can identify actors and regimes whom they can cultivate and who will then do what they want. In practice, once you are committed it’s hard to let go, and so the great power winds up defending and apologising for the behaviour of the individual or regime it originally thought it controlled. Sometimes the tail that wags the dog is an individual: a very partial list would include Mobutu Sesi Seko, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, almost any grubby Balkan politician not called Milosevic, Kagame of Rwanda and Karzai of Afghanistan. Often we come to dislike these people, and even feel betrayed by them, but the sunk costs of our past support are already too great for us to back out. A representative opinion is that of a western diplomat in Sarajevo talking about Milorad Dodik, an allegedly moderate Bosnian Serb leader in whom the West briefly reposed a lot of hope in the 1990s. “OK, there’s a lot wrong with him, but he’s the only Dodik we’ve got”. But sometimes entire countries or regimes manage to wind the West around their fingers. The classic example, of course, is Israel, or at least the extreme nationalists there, which is why it is sometimes said – perhaps unkindly – that America is the Third World’s only colony. But in fairness, other regimes – the former South Vietnam, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are good examples – also managed to carve out an untouchable status for themselves over the years, no matter who was in charge, because of their real or alleged strategic importance.
If there’s a cure for this, it is to recognise that leaders of other countries, even small, poor ones, may actually be as devious and subtle as we are, if not more so. Indeed, many of the people we are trying to influence came up through a much tougher school than anything in the West, where the penalty for getting it wrong was likely to be death, rather than exile to a comfortable think tank. No wonder the tail so often wags the dog.