There is a happy medium to be struck in public rhetoric about military activities, but the Obama administration has had an unfortunate pattern of missing the mark. By maintaining its peculiar silence about U.S. military movements in proximity to the uprising in Egypt, the administration is missing an opportunity to frame U.S. interests and have a reassuring effect on the region.
Its lack of communication about U.S. force movements is instead producing the opposite effect. On Tuesday, the ever-fertile DEBKAfile interpreted the arrival of the USS Kearsarge amphibious group at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal as a sign that an Egyptian coup is imminent. On January 31, news reporting suggested that the 700 U.S. troops in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission in the Sinai, the international force monitoring the Israeli-Egyptian demilitarization accord, were to be evacuated. That is improbable; Connecticut National Guard troops are currently being rotated into the MFO, which would account for troops in Egypt rotating out. But this rumor and others are flying around the Web.
There may be a temptation to shrug off the media speculation, but in the Internet age, it is increasingly widespread, unavoidable, and counterproductive. The rumors matter because there is no coherent message coming from the Obama administration. Where U.S. forces are bound to show up, they will be seen and speculated about. There are good reasons, especially under shifting political conditions, to make public statements about U.S. interests that clarify the purpose of those forces.
The Kearsarge amphibious group may simply be on the way home, having been deployed to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean since August 2010. The group would have headed for the Suez Canal at this time on its normal schedule, regardless of conditions in Egypt. But if this Business Insider report from the weekend is accurate, the Kearsarge group is likely to support the continued evacuation of Americans from Egypt. Why a common and highly visible operation — a “non-combatant evacuation” — should be held close to the vest is not clear. The spread of unrest makes large-scale evacuations advisable, and whether the evacuations are seen as a sign of prudence or fear depends largely on what the U.S. administration says about them — or fails to say. The same goes for regional perceptions of the other purposes the Kearsarge may have.
It’s time for the administration to start speaking purposefully. America has justifiable national interests in the Egyptian situation, interests that are not in conflict with supporting reform and liberalization. Topping the list are the safety of Americans, the security of the Suez Canal, and the continued observation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. That we propose to guard these interests is one of the main things the rest of the region wants to know. Nothing is gained from being uncommunicative about it; in fact, the opposite is true. If we want Egypt to have the latitude for instituting meaningful political reform, the best thing we can do is overtly signify our commitment to the key conditions underlying stability.