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Friday, September 14, 2012

Diplomatic mediocrity [updated]

There are times when the subsequent explanation is as bad as the gaffe. Here's what Obama said to Telemundo about Egypt:

"I don't think that we would consider them an ally but we don't consider them an enemy."

Here's the later clarification from the White House:

"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 long-standing 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."

"Partner," in this context, means pretty much nothing. The U.S. can say it's a "partner" of everyone from neutral Switzerland to definite non-ally China. Here's the legal status of Egypt since 1989: "major non-NATO ally," which carries specific legal consequences such as in cooperation on counterterrorism.  If Obama wanted to signal that Egypt might lose that status, he could have chosen other words. The words he chose suggest that he didn't know what the legal status of Egypt actually is.

Also, the NPR link above wrongly cites John McCain as saying Obama's "remarks" were "fine" as if that was a reference to the "ally" comment when in fact it was not.

During this crisis there were a few hours after Romney's poorly chosen words in which I could see someone arguing the Republican is too much of a foreign-policy neophyte. Then the president spoke. This dispiriting election season continues.

UPDATE 9:50 AM: David Frum has a different view, seeing this as "Obama's Shrewdest Gaffe," as it signaled to Egypt the precariousness of its connection to the U.S. I think that's generous, but as a counterfactual exercise I'll try to construct what Obama should have said if he'd wanted to do that, something like: "Egypt, of course, is listed as what's called a major non-NATO ally. But the true nature of an alliance is that both countries have to cooperate in good faith and take account of each other's interests. We are watching this situation very closely, and we expect Egypt to fulfill all of its obligations as a U.S. ally."

UPDATE 11:42 AM: Nick Gillespie, who usually discusses public policy with some bemusement, sounds genuinely angry at the low quality of our presidential candidates' foreign policy communication and comprehension. And rightly so.

UPDATE 3 PM: It was a moving memorial ceremony. I see some people are taking issue with Hillary Clinton's mention of the video, but I thought what she said was appropriate.

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