EXCLUSIVE Q&A: US CENTCOM commander discusses increasingly critical developments in Middle East

Ezzat Ibrahim , Thursday 10 Feb 2022

Egypt and the US have an enduring strategic relationship given Egypt’s nature as the cultural, historical and geographical centre of the Arab world, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), said in an exclusive interview with Ahram Online.

General Kenneth F. McKenzie
File photo: General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM). AP

McKenzie is currently paying a visit to Egypt as part of a tour to the Middle East that also includes Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The tour by the commander of CENTCOM, whose area of responsibility extends from North Africa to Central South Asia, comes in the wake of an unprecedented string of largely failed Houthi assaults against the UAE. One of these attacks killed three expats in Abu Dhabi in mid-January.

Mckenzie’s visit also comes as Iran, the US, and other signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which seeks to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, have entered the “final stage” of negotiations in Vienna. Tehran and Washington resumed indirect talks to salvage the deal on Tuesday.

Mckenzie’s tour also comes amid fears of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, which can have significant economic, social, and political consequences in the Middle East and Africa.

In this interview, Mckenzie disclosed to editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online Ezzat Ibrahim details about his visit to Egypt, how the US views Egypt’s regional role, and the US’ vision regarding Middle East issues.

Ahram Online: What did you discuss with Egyptian officials during your visit to Cairo?

Kenneth McKenzie: First of all, it's always great to visit Egypt and always good to come to Cairo, especially when the weather is as nice as it is right now. So, I met with the Egyptian minister of defence, and it was a very good and productive visit. We talked about the enduring strategic nature of the relationship between the US and Egypt and how important Egypt is to the US and the US Central Command. In many ways, Egypt is the cultural, historical and geographic centre of the Arab world. And so, Egypt is very important to us.

Our long history of cooperation together is a very important history for us. So, today, I was able to talk about that, we were able to talk, we were able to do a good survey of problems around the region, the issues that Egypt has, and what the US can do to help and what Egypt can do to help the US. So as always, when I visit senior Egyptian leaders, it is a frank, straightforward, cordial discussion between friends.

AO: The changing nature of war requires that Egypt, as a strategic US ally, obtain more sophisticated cyber-security and anti-drone technology to face future challenges. Is the US considering providing assistance in this regard?

KM: I believe Egypt is very interested in moving to face the new threats that are out there. Cyber threats are new things that impact warfare. Egypt has people in the region that are not friends; they want to work against Egypt. Egypt needs to be prepared to defend against these kinds of attacks. The United States is committed to helping Egypt build these capabilities.

AO: How do you view maritime security in the Red and Mediterranean seas?

KM: Egypt controls one of the great treasures of our world, the Suez Canal. In Egypt, stewardship of that canal has been the core of Egyptian policy for many, many years. And so, the United States and many of our friends and partners around the world depend on the security of the Suez Canal. Egypt's ironclad ability to provide safe passage in the canal has been very important to global commerce for many decades. Additionally, the approaches to the Suez Canal in the north involve the Eastern Mediterranean and the approaches of the Suez Canal in the south involve the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez, and down ultimately into the Indian Ocean.

Those are all areas of interest to Egypt. So, it is in all our best interest that Egypt has the ability to control maritime posture. I believe Egypt is working toward a maritime capability that will allow them to do that.

AOMy question concerns the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and Ethiopia. Last year, you delivered a message stressing the importance of the Nile water to Egyptians and the economy, but the US has not done much to bring the parties together. Do you think that Washington will act at some point?

KM: I think Egypt, like Washington, is committed to a diplomatic solution for the GERD crisis. And I believe that President El-Sisi has actually been very statesman-like in his approach to this problem, seeking to avoid military action, and instead, finding a way to negotiate a settlement that all parties can actually live with. We are prepared to help in the future to get people back together and we're prepared to do anything we can to help Egypt work at this problem diplomatically, as I believe that is Egypt's intent to do.

AO: After the killing of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi last week, what is the approach of the US and its allies in containing the possible spread of another wave of terrorism in the region?

KM: First of all, I would say that the action we took in Syria last week was a symbol of our dedication to not allowing ISIS to continue to wage a murderous campaign of terrorism across the globe and in the region. So that is a symbol and a strong sense of American commitment. Egypt has also taken strong action in Sinai to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. We will continue to work with Egypt and all other like-minded countries in the region to prevent ISIS from gathering itself back and carry out high profile attacks in all our homelands, whether that is Egypt, the US, or other nations, and it is very much in our best interest to do that.

AO: The ongoing attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pushing the US to take bold steps to protect strategic allies. What is Central Command’s approach to recent developments? Have you managed to send a message of assurance to UAE leaders?

KM: Before I visited Egypt, I paid visits to the UAE and Bahrain, and in both nations, my message was one of assurance; the United States is not leaving the central command region, we are here to stay. In the case of the UAE, which has just been the subject of reckless and irresponsible Houthi attacks, we have done several things. First of all, we are in the process of sending F-22 fighters to the UAE to help with their defence. We have sent a warship down there that has ballistic missile defence capabilities.

Those are significant actions and the action of a friend and a partner who wants to assist in regional stability. But let me come back to how I began it; it is the irresponsible and really dangerous actions of the Houthis prodded on by their Iranian masters that have gotten us into this situation; they are the party here who is causing all these problems. I think nations in the region realize that.

AO: Do you think that reinforcing the UAE’s defences – sending the USS Cole and the F-22s to Al-Dhafra and sharing more information about air defences – could prevent more attacks without a real political solution?

KM: You hit the very heart of the problem; the problem is essentially political and the Houthis have a way to end that war in Yemen if they will only seize it. I believe all parties except the Houthis actually want to find a political end to that war.

A political solution is what is going to be necessary. On the other hand, I believe the capabilities that we just sent to UAE will significantly enhance their defences. UAE has great capabilities and they are able to defend themselves. We will be able to help them better with the capabilities that we are sending to them now.

AO: Some media reports have suggested that the US is reluctant to address Iran and its proxies. Or in other words, it does not want to confront Iran before the possible relaunch of the nuclear talks.

KM: I believe that we will act to prevent aggressive behaviour by Iran and its proxies anytime it occurs and in any place that occurs, regardless of what is going on with the JCPOA (the Iranian nuclear deal). We are committed to assisting our friends in the region.

AO: You mentioned earlier that the US presence in the region is mostly defensive in nature. How does such a vision affect the kind of recent military deals with the Gulf? Is such a vision a translation of a US policy to scale back its military presence in the region and not adopt a confrontational stance? 

KM: I think, not only in the Central Command region but around the world, what we would like to see is nations that we are friends with have the ability to effectively defend themselves. And that means, when appropriate, providing them, if they are allowed to purchase weapons, with weapons that will allow them to defend themselves. And that is sort of the underlying premise behind our weapon sale program here in the Middle East, to actually allow nations to defend themselves.

It is more complex than just Patriot missiles and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems; you need fighter aircraft and a whole gamut of capabilities in order to do that. So, that is what drives our sale of weapons here in this area. It is responsibly driven. We want to provide responsible capabilities to nations that are friends.

AO: In your last talk at the Middle East Institute, you mentioned that Ukraine will have an impact on the competition between superpowers in the Middle East.

KM: There are Russians in the Middle East, most of them are in Syria. We are going to have to watch very carefully and see what Mr. Putin does in Ukraine. And I think we and all our friends in this region are watching very carefully to see how responsible he is going to be in handling that delicate situation.

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