President Obama issued a much-anticipated address Thursday in response to the horrific violence unfolding in Egypt. Before the conference was held, some speculated the U.S. might revoke its $1.3 billion aid program in response to the violence. Others predicted the president would just engage in some strong finger-wagging. But in his address today from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, the president announced a different response altogether: he cancelled a biennial joint military exercise with Egypt, and as a result, brought attention to a little-known element of U.S. foreign policy.
The upcoming military exercise, known as Bright Star, is part of a major international training program led by American and Egyptian forces that dates back to the Camp David Accords of the early 1980s. But cancelling the upcoming event serves as a quiet response, one that is more symbolic than anything — removing a carrot rather than a wielding a stick to respond to the Egyptian government's violent crackdown.
The announcement helps highlight the fact that the U.S. is involved in significant military training programs around the world. It turns out that a notable number of U.S. Military personnel and millions of dollars of funding is committed every year to train international military and civilian security forces in every major world region. In the most recent available report to Congress regarding these programs, the U.S. Military reported providing approximately $105.788 million in training to international military personnel from 135 U.S. allies and partner nations.
The programs state overall objectives to "further the goal of international stability through effective, mutually beneficial military-to-military relations that culminate in increased understanding and defense cooperation," among other broad and idealistic claims to promote international readiness, security, and peace.
These programs in Egypt have been guided by four equally vague mission points: to "continue the vital U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship and ensure Egypt's continued commitment to peace with Israel," "sustain and maintain U.S.-origin military equipment and systems to keep the Egyptian military modern and fully operational," "enhance interoperability of the Egyptian military to enable participation in coalition operations and exercises," and, "defeat terrorism through strengthened border security and tunnel detection capability."
While the highest profile recipients of this type of military training tend to be places like South Korea, the Middle East is a major recipient. Almost every state in the region is included in military training programs backed by millions of dollars of funds to support them. And Egypt has been no exception.
In 2009, the U.S. coordinated with countries such as Britain, France, Pakistan, and Jordan to run joint training exercises in the biennial Bright Star exercise. The program is a multi-national training program in Egypt "designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships and improve readiness and interoperability between U.S., Egyptian, and Coalition forces." The 2011 Bridge Star exercises were reportedly cancelled because of the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Still, the U.S. State Department reported training 620 Egyptian security forces in fiscal year 2011, backed by $14,161,822 in funding (and although it cut back significantly, it reports training 302 Egyptians for $8,056,034 last year).
The decision to cut back on the training program in Egypt in response to the violence is a significant diplomatic snub with some financial backing behind it. It puts a wedge in a tradition that dates back years, and sends a signal that the president feels compelled to respond to the violence at hand. But more than anything, it highlights a little-known element of policy in the region. The move is ultimately more symbolic than anything, and has nowhere near the impact that revoking broader aid programs would have.