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The Pentagon Has Lost Its Leverage with Egypt. Now What?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been on the phone with his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sissi, almost every day since the July 3 military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. And every day he has urged the Egyptian defense minister to find a peaceful resolution to the political turmoil. He’s called al-Sissi at least 15 times since the military booted Morsi from power, a Pentagon official told Defense One.

By all accounts, al-Sissi had agreed. Just last week, Hagel hung up the phone with Cairo and was reassured that the Egyptian military wanted a peaceful transition. “Minister Al-Sisi underscored his commitment to peaceful resolution of the ongoing protests, and thanked Secretary Hagel for U.S. support,” the Pentagon said, in a description of the Aug. 5 phone call.

After yesterday’s bloody crackdown in the streets of Egypt that left more than 500 dead, including women and children, and scores more injured, it’s clear that Hagel’s pleas have gone unheard or ignored. With world leaders, including President Barack Obama, decrying the massacre, and ice bags and desk fans futilely cooling the overflowing bodies in Cairo’s morgues, Hagel called al-Sissi again on Thursday. According to a Pentagon statement, Hagel “reiterated that the United States remains ready to work with all parties to help achieve a peaceful, inclusive way forward. The Department of Defense will continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt,” Hagel said, “but I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk.”

Hagel’s tepid response falls in line with the commander-in-chief’s own wait-and-see reaction to the deepening Egyptian crisis. President Barack Obama has refused to call the military takedown of Morsi’s elected government a coup, and will continue to send the $1.3 billion in military aid that the U.S. gives to Egypt each year. And Obama is insisting that this is Egypt’s problem — not America’s.

“America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people,” Obama said in a statement from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation on Thursday morning. “We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong.”

[Click here for more of Defense One’s coverage of Egypt.]

Obama announced he was canceling “Bright Star,” a joint military exercise with Egypt and several other nations that dates back to 1980 and the Camp David peace accord. The exercise hasn’t been held since 2009, however, and the Egyptian military is clearly too busy to participate anyway.

When asked whether canceling the exercise would even be a motivating factor for al-Sissi to end the bloodshed, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little argued it sent “a clear signal, we believe, to Egyptian authorities that we are deeply concerned about recent events in the country.”

But deep concern, after more than a dozen phone calls from Hagel and several more from other members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, doesn’t seem to have influenced al-Sissi’s decision making on the other end of the line.

With the Obama administration clearly still willing to write a $1.3 billion check, the Pentagon seems to have had little influence in prevention the Aug. 14 massacre. And Hagel’s telephone diplomacy may have even less influence on directing whatever steps al-Sissi may yet take.

“We’re watching to see what happens next in the country,” said Little.

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