How does Obama think about Egypt?

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Sunday 8 Dec 2013

In order to understand how Barack Obama and his administration think about events in Egypt one must consider how Washington defines its strategic interests in the Arab region, irrespective of who occupies the White House

There is no better place to begin than to go back to the 1940s — in fact 1945 and 1948 when Washington lay down the strategic foundations for its presence and interests in the Arab world through unique special relations with two countries: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Today, these two special relationships continue to control the thought process of any US president on Middle East issues. The issue of Egypt is no exception.

In February 1945, several months before the end of World War II, Saudi King Abdel-Aziz met with US President Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy as the Navy cruiser passed through the Suez Canal. The meeting lay the foundations for special relations between the two countries based on protecting US oil interests in Saudi Arabia in return for an alliance that protects the Saudi royal family from any regional threats. It also allowed US military jets to use Saudi airspace, Dhahran Airport, and establish a US military presence.

Three years after establishing a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, Washington recognised the State of Israel only minutes after it was created in May 1948. This was the start of a unique relationship between the US and Israel, which resulted in more than $120 billion in assistance, arming Israel with the latest US technology, as well as using the US veto 45 times in the UN Security Council in favour of Israel or to block resolutions against Tel Aviv.

Most experts on US strategy believe President Barack Obama’s administration did all it can in dealing with the serious political crisis in a large pivotal country like Egypt. Although Obama has been blamed by both sides in the conflict in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim government), US interests have not been harmed in Egypt or the region.

President Obama, more than any of his predecessors, understands the limitations of US power in today’s world. He is a president who believes in realism not idealism, and thus Obama invested his time in office to achieve four goals regarding the Middle East.

First, prevent any terrorist attack on US territories in response to US policies in the region. Second, end two wars launched by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost the US Treasury between four and six trillion dollars — making them the two most costly wars in history according to a recent Harvard study — and killed and injured thousands of Americans. The US president is convinced the US has neither reaped any rewards nor served its interests by starting these wars.

Third, decrease dependence on Arab oil by investing in renewable energy sources. A recent study by the British company BP revealed that by 2030 the US will be completely weaned off Middle East oil. Fourth, block Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon — something Washington has succeeded in so far.

Accordingly, Egypt and its democracy is not a priority for US strategy in the region. However, Egypt’s significance for Washington is rooted in Cairo’s importance to Saudi Arabia and Israel and its strong relevance to the US’s two allies. This is why the US was so confused during the January 25 Revolution as it received calls from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz urging Obama, after the latter’s first speech on Egypt on 28 January, to stand by President Mubarak out of fear events in Egyptian squares would impact the kingdom and contaminate Riyadh. Meanwhile, the White House phone did not stop ringing as Tel Aviv urged Obama to reconsider and stand by Egypt’s ruler. Netanyahu told one of his advisers that Obama “doesn’t know what is waiting for him”; he urged Obama “to stand by Mubarak no matter what happens.”

The case of Egypt is an obvious example of US hypocrisy in standards and interests. The position of the Obama administration is nothing new; for more than three decades Washington claimed to support the aspirations of the Egyptian people for freedom and democracy, while supporting an oppressive dictatorship.

As one distinguished Egyptian diplomat put it, “moral discourse” is the essence of the US’s claim about interest in democracy and respect for human rights when it comes to Egypt. As a result, Obama told CNN on 23 August that US relations with Egypt will never go back to how they were because of what happened (in reference to the death of hundreds of civilians when protests at Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares were forcibly evacuated).

Nonetheless, efforts by Israeli and Saudi lobbyists in the US capital after that succeeded in making US Secretary of State John Kerry declare in Cairo only a few weeks later that Washington is committed to supporting the roadmap drawn up by the transitional government. Also, that Egyptian-US relations should not be defined by aid alone because there are many other factors that define the relationship.

Washington’s realism and pursuit of its own interests regarding its alliance with Riyadh and Tel Aviv makes it keen on strong ties with whoever is in power in Egypt, as long as they and their regime maintain strong relations with Washington’s two most important capitals in the region.

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