Aides patch Obama’s Egypt ‘ally’ gaffe

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama’s deputies are walking back his ground-breaking acknowledgment that Egypt is no longer an “ally,” only one day after he declared that Mitt Romney tends to “shoot first and aim later.”

The pronouncement, or gaffe, apparently marked an informal end to the U.S. government’s 33-year alliance with Egypt.

The attempted walk-back prompted taunts from GOP activists.

“Sounds like it’s time to start answering questions,” jeered Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Sean Spicer, another RNC spokesman, tweeted out a “Fact Check” that labeled Obama’s statement to be legally incorrect, because Egypt is still formally designated as a “major non-NATO ally.”

Egypt’s military government has been considered a political ally since the U.S. negotiated a 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel.

However, Egypt’s newly elected Islamist government has sidelined the military, downplayed the peace deal with Israel, and stood by while rioters damage the U.S. embassy a few weeks before the national election.

The rioting and embassy attacks undermine Obama’s campaign-trail claim of foreign policy competence, built largely on his approval for the May 20010 mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Obama acknowledged the widening gap in a June 12 interview with Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV station, one day after Egypt’s government allowed rioters to break into the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

“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,” Obama said.

The same day, Obama told CBS that Romney, his Republican opponent in the presidential race,”seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” following Romney’s sharp criticism of the administration’s response to the embassy riot.

The walk-back came from senior officials and spokesmen, including Tommy Vietor, the White House’s national security spokesman.

“I think folks are reading way too much into this,” Vietor said about Obama’s statement.

“‘Ally’ is a legal term of art. … 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,” he told Foreign Policy magazine.

Jay Carney, the president’s top spokesman, offered the same phrase to reporters. “Egypt is a long-standing and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation in supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government,” Carney claimed.

Obama’s neither-ally-nor-enemy statement reflects a sudden downturn in U.S.-Egyptian relations, following the Egyptian government passivity while other Islamists rioted and occupied part of the embassy on Sept. 11.

The rioters and top government leaders shared some common goals, including the freeing of the so-called “Blind Sheik.”

The sheik, whose name is Omar Abdel-Rahman, earned a life sentence from a U.S. judge in 1995 for using the Quran to urge terror attacks in New York. His acolytes launched several attacks, including the 1993 truck-bomb attack on the Twin Towers.

In 2001, bin Laden used Abdel-Rahman’s religious claims to justify the Sept. 11 atrocity that killed 3,000 Americans.

The Cairo rioters assembled to urge for the release of Abdel-Rahman, who led Egypt’s leading jihad group, dubbed the Islamic Group, or Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, from his mosque in New York.

That Abdel-Rahman demand preceded later complaints about a cheap and largely unknown anti-Islam video produced in California.

But the demand is supported by many Islamists.

On June 30, Egypt’s current president, Mohamed Morsi, told an political rally that he would work to release Abdel-Rahman.

Morsi did not comment on the Sept. 11 embassy riot until Sept. 13.

His police were absent for much of the riot.

Obama’s informal downgrade of the U.S. relations with Egypt is a reversal of his optimistic policy over the last few years.

Since 2009, he has worked to boost Egypt’s primary Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, partly by pushing Egypt’s former military dictator to quit in 2010.

The support was underlined in July, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured Egypt’s military to not intervene against the brotherhood, whose members included Morsi.

“The United States supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails,” Clinton announced during a joint appearance with Morsi.

In 2009, Obama used a speech in Cairo to promise a “New Beginning” with Muslim countries.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world … based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition,” Obama declared in his June 2009 speech announcing the new policy. “Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” Obama claimed.

However, subsequent elections showed that roughly 75 percent of Egyptians voted for Islamist parties, including the brotherhood, and its more radical cousin, the so-called “Salafi” party.

Follow Neil on Twitter