When President Obama said during an interview that “we” don’t consider Egypt an ally, apparently that “we” didn’t include his own State Department. After being pressed by a reporter, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland confirmed today that, yes, technically Egypt is still a U.S. ally (via Politico):
That’s all the State Department can really say, given the fact that Egypt is classified as a major non-NATO ally, which makes it eligible to receive certain types of military assistance and other benefits. Which begs the question — what exactly was Obama getting at when he said otherwise?
So far, the White House hasn’t given a clear answer. Spokesperson Jay Carney struggled to spin Obama out of the blunder earlier today, and only ended up making matters worse:
The White House said immediately that there was no change in policy.
“The president, in diplomatic and legal terms, was speaking correctly,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We do not have an alliance treaty with Egypt. Ally is a legal term of art. As I said, we do not have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, like we do, for example, with our NATO allies.”
As Politico’s Byron Tau points out, that would mean other designated major non-NATO allies — including Israel — aren’t technically “allies,” at least according to Obama’s “legal term of art” definition. Complicating matters further is the fact that the term “ally” is in the title of the designation.
It’s actually pretty clear what Obama meant to say about Egypt. Obviously the Obama administration is wary about the new government, and for good reason. But the ally comment was a mistake from both a diplomatic and legal perspective. It certainly couldn’t have sent a comforting sign to other major non-NATO allies in the region, and it stepped on his campaign’s efforts to portray him as a competent leader on foreign policy.