White House clarifies—while defending—Obama on Egypt

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

A day after President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney of having a "shoot first and aim later" approach to foreign policy, the White House found itself Thursday recalibrating the incumbent's claim that Egypt is not "an ally" nor an enemy. At the same time, it insisted his comment was technically true.

The chief problem for Obama—who said of Egypt, "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy"—is that Egypt has formally been a "major non-NATO ally" since 1989. That designation makes it easier to provide a country with American military hardware. And presidents of both parties have described Egypt as a close ally while showering it with more than $1 billion per year in aid.

"The president, in diplomatic and legal terms, was speaking correctly, that we do not have an alliance treaty with Egypt," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

"'Ally' is a legal term of art," Carney said. That comment may raise more eyebrows than it lowers, especially among conservatives who charge that Obama shortchanges traditional allies like Israel.

"But as the president has said, Egypt is a 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 spokesman added.

Obama's description of Egypt came in the aftermath of violent protests targeting the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and its consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where an attack by gunmen left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead.

The president—his handling of the so-called "Arab Spring" under fresh scrutiny after attacks on the American diplomatic posts in Egypt, Libya and, on Thursday, Yemen—had been asked by Telemundo whether he sees Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's fledgling government as an ally.

"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," Obama said. "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."

Surely the State Department can clear up this misunderstanding?

"Obviously for parsing of the president's comments, I'm going to send you to the White House," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

"But as a matter of fact and practice, the word ally generally is used with a treaty ally, which is a different matter than the fact that we have a very close and longstanding partnership with the government of Egypt, and we are working together to support their democratic transition," she added. But Egypt is still a major non-NATO ally, right? "Correct, yeah."

Does declaring that Egypt is not technically or legally an "ally" because it does not have a mutual defense treaty put countries like Pakistan or India on notice? "Well, that was certainly, I don't think, the intention. I'm going to refer you to the White House for further parsing on this," Nuland said.

It fell to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to tackle the substance of the issue as she seemed to echo Obama's comments but argued forcefully against cutting off aid to Egypt, as some Republicans have suggested.

"I don't know about the word 'ally,' we'll see," Pelosi said at a Capitol press conference. "But the fact is we have an interest in Egypt's success. Let's hope that we can do that as allies."