The White House is walking back a comment from President Obama that Egypt is not an “ally,” confirming that it doesn’t accurately represent the nation’s official status.
Obama suggested in an interview Wednesday with Telemundo that Egypt’s relationship with America had grown unclear in the wake of an anti-American riot at 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,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama drew praise from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for his assessment, who said in a CNN interview that Obama was “basically right.”
But, as the Associated Press noted in a fact check, Egypt is a “major non-NATO ally” under American law — a status shared with 15 countries, including close partners like Israel, Japan and South Korea.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to Foreign Policy that Obama’s words did not represent a change in policy. The president was speaking colloquially, he said.
“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 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.”
Relations with Egypt have been severely strained since protestors breached the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and a separate attack in Libya killed Ambassador Christoper Stevens. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist recently elected after dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, has not condemned the embassy riot and Obama called him up personally since the protests.
On Thursday morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the use of violence against diplomats and pointedly said that “any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.”
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Kirsten Kukowski, said that the confusion was ironic given that Obama said the same week that Mitt Romney has “a tendency to shoot first and aim later” on foreign policy. Obama was commenting on Romney’s initial reaction to the Mideast crisis on Tuesday, in which he inaccurately said that the White House’s “first response” to the violence was “to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
“After warning against shooting first and aiming later, President Obama is sending mixed messages on whether Egypt is an ally or not,” Kukowski said in a statement. “Sounds like it’s time to start answering questions.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.