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Obama Walks Back Egypt ‘Not Ally’ Answer

In an interview with Telemundo yesterday, President Obama gave a perfectly reasonable answer to an obvious question:

Jose Diaz Balart – Would you consider the current Egyptian regime an ally of the United States?

Pres. Obama: I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They’re a new government that is trying to find its way. They were democratically elected. I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident. How they respond to, for example, maintaining the peace treaty in isr..with Israel. So far, at least, what we’ve seen is that in some cases they’ve said the right things and taken the right steps. In others, how they’ve responded to various events may not be aligned with our interests. And, So I think it’s still a work in progress, but certainly in this situation what we’re going to expect is that they are responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected, and if they take actions that indicate they’re not taking responsibilities, as all other countries do where we have embassies, I think that’s going to be a real big problem.

That’s neither controversial nor even on a diplomatic limb. The Egyptian government is in a state of transition and the administration—and Congress—has made it clear that the future of generous American financial assistance and the like are dependent on Egypt making progress.

Regardless, the administration walked back the answer today.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable Thursday that the administration is not signaling a change in that status.

“I think folks are reading way too much into this,” Vietor said. “‘Ally’ is a legal term of art. We don’t have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But as the president has said, Egypt is longstanding and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government.”

The problem with this clarification, of course, is that it’s utter horseshit.

First, there’s no reading of Obama’s answer that indicates he was talking about formal designation; he’s obviously assessing the degree to which the two governments are on the same page and working towards mutual benefit.

Second, as Josh Rogin points out, “Egypt was designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally in 1989 when Congress first passed the law creating that status, which gives them special privileges in cooperating with the United States, especially in the security and technology areanas.” So, if Obama was answering the question that his spokesman absurdly claims he was answering, he got it wrong.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Diplomacy 101. Egypt hears Obama; it hears the walkback. Message is, we can go either way here, Egypt: which will it be?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Anderson: But the original was neither heated nor insulting. It was a concise, nuanced statement of our policy over the last several months.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  3. David M says:

    I’m with James here, I don’t see anything objectionable in the first statement, and the walkback was unnecessary. If anything, the second statement just made things less clear.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:
    Do you think, if this wasn’t late into a contentious election year, this particular walk back would have occurred?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Yeah, I think it was what Michael Kinsley defined so memorably as a gaffe: When a politician accidentally tells the truth.

    It’s a Muslim Brotherhood government. Ally? Eh, let’s wait and see about that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Spokesperson FAIL. POTUS’ answer seems fine to me. Should’ve left it be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. Anderson says:

    Right, JJ: the first statement was the truth, and the second statement tried to blur the truth. If the truth causes squawks, the White House can point to the walkback.

    I don’t think this walkback is anything out of the ordinary; Morsi will know which one to believe.

    (FDR was a master at making both statements himself.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, what’s sort of funny about this is that if someone like McCain or if heaven forbid W. Bush (gulp) had said those exact words the chattering classes would have embarked upon such a frenzied high dudgeon mode attack their heads quite literally would have exploded. They wouldn’t have lauded how “nuanced” the answer was, nor how “complex” was the question. Um, no. They would have called him an idiot, screamed “unilaterialism” at the tops of their lungs, then counted some more of their trust fund money.

    In any case, we all know technically Egypt has been an ally since the 1980’s, but that’s not how anybody of consequence would have interpreted that question. A normal person would have interpreted that question that same way Obama did: colloquially. In turn Obama gave a very good, very sentient response. Granted, I would have preferred that he were a little more forceful there at the end (explaining that ultimately it would be their problem because we’d hold them to account), but then again I’m to the right of Satan. Most importantly there was no need whatsoever for Team Obama to walk this one back. What Obama said here was A-OK.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 3 Thumb down 17

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    You could not be more full of it.

    It’s Fox and the right wing propaganda machine that are the unchallenged champions of making something out of very little. The fact is we liberals suck at it. We’re suckers for nuance, and we’re not primarily motivated by hatred. All that makes our ability to generate outrage tepid by comparison with the daily and nightly deluge of lie-fed right wing hysteria.

    And let’s see, that would make you wrong, um. . . let me just turn on my calculator here . . . Yes, 100% of the time. Keep it up you’ll get the Hannity Gold Star.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 5

  10. Rob in CT says:

    Well, what’s sort of funny about this is that if someone like McCain or if heaven forbid W. Bush (gulp) had said those exact words the chattering classes would have embarked upon such a frenzied high dudgeon mode attack their heads quite literally would have exploded.

    Awww, you’re so persecuted.

    Except that no, they wouldn’t have.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 3

  11. Jack Moss says:

    I think he shot first and asked questions later…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    Egypt is not and never has been an ally – it was and probably still is a client state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Mike says:

    Re: the spokesman’s statement, what he said is technically correct since MNNA status doesn’t confer any “mutual defense” obligations like Article 5 of the NAT or the bilateral agreements we have with a few other countries (Japan and South Korea are the first that come to mind). Of course, making them sound like they’re just a “partner” (we’re “partners” with half the countries in the world) is also pretty disingenuous given their MNNA status.

    Regardless walking it back is idiotic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. jd says:

    Any previous treaty involving Egypt was with a *different goverment*. What are they doing for us today?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. Raoul says:

    I don’t see the statement as a walkback- I see it more as a reitiration- though very nuanced- basically the US is telling Egypt: your move.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  16. The thing that doesn’t seem to be mentioned is that “not an ally” is not exactly a criticism. It may be party a warning, but it is also political cover for a government that may be under siege from more extreme elements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  17. Tillman says:

    @jd:

    What are they doing for us today?

    Not warmongering with Israel, c.f. Iran. That’s one of the reasons they remain (as Ron said) a client state.

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Granted, I would have preferred that he were a little more forceful there at the end (explaining that ultimately it would be their problem because we’d hold them to account), but then again I’m to the right of Satan.

    Satan’s right wing? I always figured him to be a “take all comers” kinda dude.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  18. black onion says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Keep it up you’ll get the Hannity Gold Star.

    Come on, we all know that gold starts are communist. Just look at their flags. Hannity’s star would be red, white and blue with a country soundtrack for good measure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. michael reynolds says:

    FYI there’s a lot of new info coming out about the so-called filmaker.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Just Me says:

    Given everything that has happened in Egypt with the change in government and the lack of adequate security for the US embassy Obama’s first answer seems like the correct one.

    The walk back was unnecessary and I am not even sure who it was meant to please-I imagine most on the left and right in the US were fine with his original answer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Delmar says:

    Too bad General LeMay’s not around anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  22. stonetools says:

    Well, what’s sort of funny about this is that if someone like McCain or if heaven forbid W. Bush (gulp) had said those exact words

    But they wouldn’t have said those exact words. Lord knows what those yokels or Mitt would have made of answering that question.

    George Bush would have said the Egyptian government is either for us or against us.
    John McCain would have invited them to help us bomb Iran and invade Syria
    MItt Romney would have warned them not to ally themselves with Russia our archenemy.

    Thank God that Obama and not those guys answered the question.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  23. tps says:

    @Delmar:

    You mean blessed st Curtis Lemay.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Anderson says:

    Oh look:

    Domestically, the Obama administration looked disorganized on this ally question; just bizarre listening to Jay Carney’s “official definition” of ally to walk back his boss’ comments. But internationally, it does appear that Egypt got the message. Suddenly, it appears Morsi has shut down the protests for today.

    Trouble is, we have journalists covering international relations who have never read a history book in their lives, much less any sort of study of diplomatic history.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0