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.