In Rebuke to Egypt, Obama Cancels Joint Military Exercises

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. -- President Obama, deploring the military-led Egyptian government's deadly crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters there, said on Thursday that the United States would pull out of scheduled joint military exercises with the Egyptian Army.

"While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual while civilians are being killed in the streets," Mr. Obama said in remarks delivered from his rented vacation home on Martha's Vineyard.

"The Egyptian people deserve better than what we've seen over the past several days," the president said, adding that the "cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop."

Mr. Obama's announcement, though less sweeping than other potential steps like suspending $1.3 billion in American military aid to Egypt, is the first concrete American response to the violence, which American officials for weeks have urged the Egyptian authorities to avoid.

The joint military exercises, known as Bright Star, were scheduled to start next month. They are a major biennial exercise led by American and Egyptian forces, and involving hundreds of troops and airmen from both countries, that date from the early 1980s.

The president said he had asked his national security staff to study whether further measures were warranted, given the widespread bloodshed in Cairo and other cities. He said the United States opposed steps like the imposition of martial law.

But while Mr. Obama condemned the violence, which has left more than 500 demonstrators dead and thousands wounded, he emphasized that the United States did not intend to abandon its broader partnership with the Egyptian military, which has spanned three decades.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that he had spoken to Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian minister of defense, and stressed that the Egyptian government "must refrain from violence, respect freedom of assembly, and move toward an inclusive political transition."

"The Department of Defense will continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt," Mr. Hagel said in the statement, "but I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk."

In his statement, Mr. Obama made no mention of whether the military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last month constituted a coup, a legal designation that could lead to a cutoff of the military aid. The administration has avoided making that judgment, saying that to do so would not be in the American national security interest.

The president also expressed sympathy for antigovernment protesters whose large-scale uprising against Mr. Morsi precipitated the military's intervention. Mr. Morsi's government, he said, was not inclusive and had lost the support of "perhaps even a majority" of Egyptians.

Still, the president said, the proper path for Egypt was a process of political reconciliation, not a brutal crackdown on Mr. Morsi's supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Administration officials fear that suspending that aid could destabilize the region, jeopardize Israel's security, and would deprive the United States of its only lever to use on the generals. Analysts also say that if the United States withdrew its support, Egypt's generals would be able to replace it with increased assistance from Saudi Arabia.

"America cannot determine the future of Egypt," Mr. Obama said. "We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure." He added, "I know it's tempting inside Egypt to blame the United States," noting that protesters have alternately accused Washington of supporting Mr. Morsi and colluding with those who deposed him.

It was the second time that upheaval in the Arab world has intruded on Mr. Obama's summer vacation. Two years ago, he stepped before the cameras on Martha's Vineyard to react to events in Libya, where rebel forces had overrun the capital, Tripoli, and forced Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi into hiding. Colonel Qaddafi was caught and executed a few weeks later.

On a Christmas break in Hawaii in 2009, Mr. Obama was criticized for waiting several days to speak about a bungled plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit. Administration officials later conceded he should have reacted faster.

This time, the president waited a day after the crackdown in Egypt before he spoke, putting forward Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday to deliver the initial American reaction. But with the death toll from the bloody operation surpassing 500, White House officials evidently calculated that Mr. Obama could no longer afford to remain silent.

In 1998, while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan to retaliate for Qaeda-engineered attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He flew to Washington later that day to address the nation from the Oval Office.

Bright Star is a military exercise that takes place every two years and is hosted by Egypt and United States Central Command. It is intended to strengthen the relationship between the Egyptian and coalition forces and allow them to work together better in case of a large-scale conflict in the region. In the past, the exercise has included naval, land and air force operations, an explosive ordnance disposal exercise and a command post exercise. The exercise was scheduled to start Sept. 18 and would have lasted approximately two weeks.

Bright Star was first held in 1980, as a result of the Camp David peace accords, and is the oldest exercise in the Central Command's area of operations. The exercise helps participants understand how allies operate: their tactics and techniques, their behavior under stress and the way they plan.

The last Bright Star exercise was conducted in September 2009. Another was scheduled for 2011, but both the United States and Egyptian governments agreed to postpone the event in light of the political transition in Egypt.

In 2009, approximately 5,000 United States personnel -- including Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Special Operations and military reserves -- participated in Bright Star. Though participants had not been announced for this year's exercise, in 2009, nations that participated in Bright Star included France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Kingdom.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here