WASHINGTON -- The United States on Thursday advised Americans to leave Egypt and canceled a joint military training exercise, but stopped short off cutting off aid, reflecting the Obama administration’s attempt to retain some influence as the situation continued to deteriorate following a lethal crackdown on supporters of the country’s deposed president.
President Barack Obama interrupted a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to issue the administration’s sharpest criticism yet of the escalating conflict, condemning the violence and calling for the military to lift martial law.
“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said, announcing the suspension of Bright Star, a September training exercise.
“The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days," Obama said. "And to the Egyptian people, let me say, the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop."
Obama didn’t mention the $1.3 billion in military assistance that the U.S. provides the country, but said he’s asked his national security team to "assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.”
The military crackdown and ouster last month of President Mohammad Morsi have posed a vexing problem for Obama and some in Congress who have considered aid to Egypt’s military key to U.S. interests in the Middle East. The U.S. has provided military and economic assistance to Egypt since the late 1970s aimed at sustaining the 1979 Camp David Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Although U.S. law calls for foreign aid to be suspended following coups, the White House and State Department have gone to great lengths to avoid using the word. Obama on Thursday insisted that “after the military’s intervention several weeks ago, there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path.”
Some lawmakers renewed a call for cutting off aid in the wake of the attacks, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who accused Obama of “skirting the issue.”
And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the cancelling of the war games an “important step,” but added, “our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy."
Obama’s muted rebuke of the military drew criticism from Middle East analysts who’ve monitored the U.S. response to Egypt’s upheaval, and say the administration has been a step behind.
They said the administration was slow to condemn Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies, looked absurd in refusing to declare a coup, and then refused to go much further than expressing “deep concern” over the fact that Egypt’s first democratically elected president was held without charges for weeks.
While Obama’s remarks Thursday included direct criticism of the Egyptian military, analysts said it still sounded like too little, too late.
“Obama’s Egypt policy is always at least two crackdowns behind where it should be,” Joshua Stacher, an Egypt specialist at Kent State University and author of, “Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria,” said on Twitter.