Obama disowns ally Egypt - slip or diplomacy?

After Mitt Romney’s heavily criticized blast at the administration for mishandling this week’s attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo this week and “sympathizing” with the anti-American zealots who carried them out, President Obama had a sharp rejoinder.

“Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” Obama said in an interview with CBS News Wednesday. “And one of the things I’ve learned as president is you can’t do that, that it’s important for you to make sure the statements you make are backed up by the facts, and that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them.”

Later on, Obama was asked in a Telemundo interview whether Egypt is a U.S. ally, and he turned long-established foreign policy on its head. “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” the president said.

Did he think through the ramifications of that statement?

Sure, it’s true the U.S. does not have a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, as it does with its NATO allies. But we have had relatively close relations with Egypt at least since President Richard M. Nixon’s diplomatic initiatives after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1973. And Cairo gets $1.5 billion in foreign aid from the U.S. annually – the second largest recipient, after Israel; Obama voted for that aid as a senator and has backed it as president, even arguing against some in Congress who want to cut it.

Further, Egypt was designated a U.S. ally by Congress in 1989, along with other important non-NATO countries like Israel, Japan and Australia. There had been no change in that status for Egypt, not even during the Arab Spring revolt that deposed long-time President Hosni Mubarak, credited with keeping a lid on the Islamist radicals in the country – until, it seemed, Obama seemed to disown the largest Arab nation in the middle of his interview with the Spanish-language Telemundo.

The State Department and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later clarified Obama’s remark, making it clear that Egypt has been, and remains, a U.S. ally.

The episode was another twist in a week that has been dominated by foreign policy issues, an anomaly in this economy-obsessed presidential campaign.

To be fair, it should be noted here that some analysts have suggested a different interpretation: that Obama was, in fact, engaging in high-level diplomatic elbow-throwing. In that view, he was telling the post-Mubarak Egyptian government it had better get a handle on the violent anti-American protests sparked by a You Tube film perceived as highly insulting to Islam…or else.