The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi happened because the Libyan government is still weak, rebuilding after its revolution against Muammar Qaddafi. But there was no doubt that the new government was a friend of the US ambassador who was killed, Chris Stevens, or that it would mobilize to deal with the cells of the Ansar al-Shariah extremists that launched the attack. Pro-America demonstrations regretting the attack on the consulate have been held all over Libya.
The puzzle comes in Egypt, where the government and security forces are strong, but were not deployed in force to protect the US embassy (unlike in the past), and where newly elected president Mohammad Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, did not explicitly condemn the small crowd that tried to invade the embassy grounds on Tuesday and which tore down the American flag.
Morsi was no doubt himself offended by the trailer on Youtube of a movie villifying the Prophet Muhammad, and he was probably concerned to not be outflanked by Muslim forces to his right, the Salafi Nour Party or the Gama’ah Islamiya (formerly a terrorist organization that has given up violence). But his declining to make a firm statement in defense of the sanctity of foreign embassies annoyed the Obama administration mightily.
In an interview with Telemundo, President Barack Obama showed his annoyance with Morsi:
“I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” the president said.
“I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident,” Obama said.
“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.
Egypt is among about 14 countries designated as “major non-NATO allies” by US presidents. This status recognizes that they do joint military exercises with the US, and gives them special access to advanced US weaponry. However, some of them are not allies in the precise legal sense. That is, there is no obligation of mutual defense. A true ally, as with NATO states, is one that the allied country is pledged to defend from attack. Still, US officials typically have referred to Egypt as an ally, and the State Department made clear that it continues to do so.
So Obama was technically correct that Egypt is not an ally in the sense that Britain or even Turkey is. But unlike what some media outlets wrote, this statement was no gaffe. Rather, Obama was playing hardball with Morsi, trying to impress upon him that the status of ‘major non-NATO ally’ is not automatic now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in control. It will have to be re-earned, at least from Obama’s point of view. And the lack of response on the embassy attack is not consistent with ally status. Non-NATO ally status is bestowed by a stroke of the presidential pen, so Obama could take it away.
White House spokesman Jay Carney added on Thursday that “Obama spoke with President Mohamed Morsi, the first Islamist leader following an uprising which toppled Mubarak last year, on Wednesday and impressed upon him the need to protect US diplomats…”
Under Obama’s pressure, Morsi, in Brussels seeking European aid, finally explicitly condemned Tuesday’s attack on the US embassy in Egypt:
“we don’t accept, condone, or approve at all for there to be attacks on embassies, consulates or people, or killing in any way.”
“We want to cooperate with the entire world and we are cooperating now with the E.U. and the European people and with the American people and others and the U.S. administration to prevent such practices in the future. Also, we insist on the protection of persons, properties and embassies. The Egyptian people are very civilized and could not ever express their rejection of such practices with an attack on an embassy or person or consulate.”
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