This is not your father’s Egypt, under the evolving rule of Mohammed Morsi. This is a Sinai-militarizing, Jerusalem-coveting, trash-talking Egypt. (Wait – maybe that is your father’s Egypt.) And Egyptian officials have quickly turned their trash-talking skills on their one-time partner, the United States.
Sadly, the statements of Suez Canal Authority chairman Mohab Mamish sounded just credible enough to get legs in the U.S. media. According to Mamish, when Iranian frigate Alvand approached the Suez Canal in February 2012, headed for Syria, the U.S. asked Egypt to prohibit Alvand’s transit through the Canal. In a 26 August interview, Mamish also refers to a “U.S. request to strike” the Iranian ship at the time.
The latter assertion is just silly, and tips off the unbelievable nature of the whole tale. No one in the U.S. military chain of command, up to and including President Obama, would think it was a good idea to “strike” the Iranian frigate. But even if someone did, doing so at the Suez Canal, with the full knowledge of Egypt, is as wrong as it gets, approach- and venue-wise. If the U.S. were going to “strike” another nation’s warship under the circumstances of the Alvand’s transit, we’d just do it wherever we wanted to during the ship’s transit, without asking another nation for permission to do it in her territorial waters.
Similarly, the statement about the U.S. asking to have the Alvand turned back at the Suez Canal fails to hold up under scrutiny. It would be a very big deal to ask Egypt to prohibit the transit of a sovereign nation’s warship, and frankly, the U.S. would have to know such a request would be turned down. Egypt has cooperated, since the inauguration of the War on Terror, in the interdiction of merchant ships carrying arms for terrorists (e.g., Hezbollah). But a warship is the representative of her nation, and stopping an Iranian frigate would be, in effect, a declaration of failing relations between Egypt and Iran.
Of course that’s Egypt’s call to make. Moreover, there are literally dozens of U.S. professionals in the State Department, Defense Department, and on the National Security Council staff who know that asking Egypt to do this would be a foolish and inappropriate request. You don’t ask Egypt to just stick her neck out. The goal of preventing Iranian arms from getting to Syria is a sound one, but deputizing Egypt to take the risk of the showdown with Iran – especially when the U.S. is being passive and following from behind – is an unsound approach.
The ideologues on Obama’s national-security team may not know that, but their career staffers do. If this issue got to Obama’s level, I imagine there was someone conveying the sensible point of view. That said, I’m not convinced the U.S. ever entertained this course of action at all. It sounds like a fabrication to me, or at the very least, a wild exaggeration.
If I had to guess the purpose of these statements, I would say it’s to establish the theme of Egypt standing up to and confounding the United States. The following paragraph appears in the Breitbart and original World Tribune stories:
Mamish says the Egyptian military has “tight control” of the canal at this time, intimating that they are the ones making decisions about which nations will and won’t be allowed to pass through it. The U.S. has no say in the matter.
Well, of course we have no say in the matter. We never have. Egypt runs the Canal. This is not a point that needs to be reaffirmed – complete with tales about how Egypt stood up to the U.S. – unless Egypt perceives a need to score political points. And that appears to be what’s going on.
Defense without, er, defense
Meanwhile, as recently as Wednesday, Stars & Stripes had a story on the new, deployable tactical operations center the U.S. 10th Army (based in Germany) will take to Israel for Exercise Austere Challenge 2012. The deployable TOC supports air and missile defense, and is to be a central feature of the high-priority ballistic-missile defense (BMD) facet of Austere Challenge. Using Austere Challenge to exercise missile defense is in line with President Obama’s emphasis on missile defense for Israel as a security response to the Iranian threat.
The exercise has had a troubled history in 2012. Originally scheduled for the spring, it was postponed until later in the year, with a launch date in October finally settled on. But now the exercise is being scaled back considerably, according to a Time report on Friday. Instead of the 5,000 U.S. troops originally planned, the exercise contingent will be more like 1,500, and possibly fewer.
Equally important is the report that although Patriot missile batteries will deploy to Israel, there will be no crews to operate them. That is quite odd: a Patriot battery deploys as a unit, with technicians to set the equipment up and maintain it, along with the crews to operate it. It is bizarre and pointed to deploy the hardware but not the crews. There is no military sense to it; it can only be intended to send a political message – and apparently a baby-splitting message, at that.
Israel can take comfort that she isn’t the only U.S. ally to be sent Patriot parts without the actual Patriot defense capability. The much-publicized deployment of the U.S. Patriot missile to Poland turned out to involve “rotational training units” but no Patriot interceptor missiles. The original agreement was concluded in 2008, and I very much doubt the Bush administration misled the Poles as to the character of the proposed BMD deployments. But an embassy cable from February 2009 registered Polish anger that the Patriot systems would be deployed without any missiles, which is not what they thought they were signing up for.
In August 2012, Poland’s president said going with the U.S. missile-defense plan was a mistake, and that Poland would be building her own missile defenses from now on. The tortured symbolism of rotational training without missiles doesn’t seem to have met Poland’s defense needs. Warsaw will turn to Germany and France for assistance with building a national missile defense.
Israel has done considerable BMD development of her own, and it is not clear that she will be unable to defend herself without US support. But pointedly moving Patriot hardware to Israel without crews to operate the system sends the message that the U.S. is committed only so far to the defense of Israel. The other cutback reported for Austere Challenge is a reduction in the Aegis BMD warships committed to the exercise, from two to one – or possibly zero. Since the main focus of the exercise will be BMD, this merely amplifies the signal sent by the unmanned Patriot hardware.
US General throws Israel under bus
Again, there is no military sense in these moves, which have been explained – absurdly – as due to budget problems. The clarity of the political message has been sharpened, however, by dismissive – not to say pusillanimous –statements from General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about an Israeli attack on Iran (h/t: JTA).
These are the money lines from a presser Dempsey did with London media on 30 August:
An Israeli attack on Iran would delay but probably not stop its nuclear programme, the most senior US military officer has claimed. General Martin Dempsey reinforced Washington’s opposition to unilateral Israel military action as he made clear that US military chiefs were equally wary of getting ensnared in Syria. …
Distancing himself from any Israeli plan to bomb Iran, Dempsey said such an attack would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear programme.”
He added: “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.”
Dempsey said he did not know Iran’s nuclear intentions, as intelligence did not reveal intentions. What was clear, he said, was that the “international coalition” applying pressure on Iran “could be undone if [Iran] was attacked prematurely.” Sanctions against Iran were having an effect, and they should be given a reasonable opportunity to succeed.
I imagine we can reassure General Dempsey that he will not be complicit, if that’s what he’s worried about. It should go without saying that interviews like this one make the U.S. look unserious and even pathetic. If we want Iran’s respect, this – “Hey, don’t blame us” – isn’t the way to get it.
But there’s more to it than that. Leon Panetta has assured Americans that the effects of the sanctions on Iran “may not be obvious.” What is obvious, however, is that the sanctions are not affecting Iran’s nuclear program, which is the only thing that matters. Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t the only one making that point; the Obama White House appears to agree with him, and the IAEA’s latest report on the Iranian nuclear program indicates acceleration in some areas – i.e., burying a working centrifuge network at the Fordo site near Qom – and continued, unresolved concerns in others. The Jewish Virtual Library has a summary from 15 August of the numerous ways in which sanctions have failed.
Predictably, the Iranian leadership is continuing its nuclear program in spite of the bite of sanctions on the economy and the people. It will continue to do so. Iran has been stalling for years in P5+1 talks, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the mullahs will change their tactics, when those tactics have successfully bought them time for the last eight years.
Intelligence may not tell us the Iranians’ intentions, but it certainly tells us what they have been interested in, from nuclear-warhead design to nuclear-warhead detonators and long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Their interest in these elements of a nuclear weapon goes back to 2003 and before. They have been interested in burying their program and putting their missiles in ground silos in the side of a mountain. They want to enrich more and more uranium, and enrich uranium to higher than 19.75% purity, the latter ambition being one for which there is no non-military purpose. There is no aspect of a hardened, extended-range nuclear-weapons program which they have not exhibited.
We don’t know exactly how close the Iranians are to having a working warhead. The idea that we infallibly could is not a meaningful one for national-security decisions. You cannot detect a smoking gun until it’s been fired, and then it’s too late, at least for limited action. Israel can’t afford to wait until even Mondoweiss is convinced the Iranians have the bomb. Once they do, Israel’s options expire.
Ours don’t, but they are ratcheted up to a level that will be politically unacceptable. Politically, we can’t invade and regime-change Iran because she has developed a bomb. Living with a nuclear-armed Iran is not a better option, however. Once Iran nukes up, Egypt will too, and possibly Saudi Arabia and Turkey. If Iran establishes an immunity to U.S. counteraction, the face of the Middle East and everything around it will change forever. This will affect the United States immediately; there will be no grace period.
The blinders-on complacency of the current US administration is breathtaking. I am saddened to see the day when our top general tries to shed responsibility in advance, rather than remembering that we are all trying to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the only way to do that is to be tough with Iran. I believe Netanyahu and his voters know that Dempsey’s words are not representative of the American people’s attitude. The question remains what Netanyahu will deem it necessary to do in the next three-odd months, since it’s extremely obvious Obama won’t be doing anything.
Originally published at the Optomistic Conservative blog.
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