The Senate blocked Sen. Rand Paul’s (R., Ky.) proposal to cut foreign aid to Egypt by a wide bipartisan margin on Wednesday in the latest edition of an intra-GOP debate pitting Paul against some of the realist hawks with whom he previously allied on the issue.
Paul has made cutting foreign aid a top priority since taking office. His latest amendment to the transportation appropriations bill would have redirected Egyptian aid to a fund to repair U.S. bridges. The Senate voted to table the proposal 86 to 13.
Realist hawks found common ground with Paul when he advocated cutting off aid to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s administration. Now that the military has deposed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, many favor continuing aid.
Paul finds himself allied with many neoconservatives, who want to suspend assistance in light of what they view as a military coup and a troubling sign for Egypt’s democratic prospects.
The shifting battle lines could explain Paul’s apparent confusion when he recently tweeted that "American neocons" wanted to keep sending aid to Egypt’s "military junta."
Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), who cosponsored an amendment with Paul to cut Egyptian aid in March, blasted Paul’s latest proposal on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
"If you have any feelings at all for our good friends, our best friends in the Middle East—that's Israel—then you can't consider this amendment," said Inhofe. "I would say from a conservative, from this conservative, we cannot do this to our friends from Israel and our other allies in the Middle East."
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who defended assistance to Egypt under Morsi, is now open to suspending it. However, he also opposed Paul’s amendment, saying that senators should avoid "a rush to judgment on this issue."
Paul argued that the United States had a legal requirement to cut foreign assistance after a military coup, adding that foreign aid damages the perception of America around the world.
"If I thought the foreign aid would do something good, I might be for it," said Paul. "It doesn't buy goodwill of the people. It buys ill will. It does completely the opposite of everything they say it does. It does completely the opposite."
Observers say the Kentucky senator’s end goal, cutting foreign aid, has been consistent. But his changing justifications have irked realist hawks who saw him as a potential ally on the Egyptian aid issue when Morsi was at the helm.
Paul argued on July 2 that the United States should cut Egyptian aid in support of the protesters calling for Morsi’s ouster. He previously opposed assistance on the grounds that it is too expensive, ineffective, and goes to "countries that are burning our flag."
"By jumping around and using every argument he can come up with against using foreign aid as a concept, what [Paul’s] doing is he’s effectively forswearing the use of our economic power in advancing our national interests," said David Reaboi, the spokesperson for the Center for Security Policy. "He’s taking the most important non-kinetic, non-military tool out of the U.S. arsenal."
"What he’s doing now is he wants to cut off aid to the people that knocked off the folks that are burning our flag," he added.
A former foreign policy official who said he has been working with Paul’s office told the Washington Free Beacon that the time to suspend aid to Egypt was under Morsi.
"That would have been the time for Sen. Paul, I think, to really lead a charge to say ‘let’s cut back on the foreign aid’—not altogether, but cut back," said the official. "Now that we have a chance to build a government in Egypt, or to help build a government in Egypt that is non-Islamic, now is that time we have to double down on foreign aid."
Paul’s office did not respond to request for comment.
The current case against cutting aid is summed up by hawks like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who say the Egyptian military provides stability in the region.
Bolton told the Free Beacon the United States is legally required to cut off aid after the recent events in Egypt, but said the administration should try to get presidential waiver authority in the interest of national security.
"I do think genuine aid to Egypt makes sense, at least continuing aid to the military," said Bolton. "I think the proper way to go is for the administration to get authority from Congress to override the statute either by creating a presidential waiver...or by saying in the case of Egypt now, the statute doesn’t fly."
"I think it is in America’s interest to keep up the relationship, especially with the Egyptian military, that we’ve been building since the Camp David Accords in 1979," Bolton added. "I think to throw that away now would eliminate the best piece of leverage we have in a country that’s very vital for American interests."
Other national security conservatives argue that the way to leverage U.S. interests post-Morsi is to suspend military aid. This group, which includes prominent neoconservatives like Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan, argues that the United States is legally required to cut off assistance after a coup, and failing to do so would send the wrong message.
They have also raised concerns about recent actions by the Egyptian military, particularly its crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood officials. Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi earlier this month called on civilians to "take to the streets" to counter pro-Brotherhood rallies.
"He was looking for the streets to get bloody. It’s outrageous," Lee Smith, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, told the Free Beacon. "The idea that we somehow have control over a military that would do something like that is preposterous."
Smith said the military leadership appeared to be inflaming tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents.
"That’s the definition for how you create the conditions for a civil war," Smith added.
While some hawks believe Paul can be coaxed into the mainstream foreign policy fold on certain issues, others are unconvinced.
"He’s an ideologue and where his interests intersect with ours it’s fine," said one official at a foreign policy organization. "But are we skeptical? Yes. Is everyone I know skeptical? Yes. Everyone I know is a little bit guarded, even when we agree."
"[He’s] like Obama in many ways," the official added. "At least with the guy who’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he has an incentive to keep the sheep’s clothing on."
Others believe there is room for persuasion.
"There is an effort underway now to sort of help educate Sen. Paul," said a former foreign policy official. "We don’t mean that to be in a derogatory way—but to help educate him on the need for a strong America."
The official said a group of former national security types has been "working with his staff and with him as much as possible" and that Paul has been "very open to listening. But I think we still have challenges that remain in terms of his public stature."
"We have had limited success in engaging him, but we have had some so far—and we’re going to pick it up," said the official.