When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: “Where’s the nearest carrier?”
President Bill Clinton
March 12, 1993 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt
A reader at Hot Air commented as follows on my last post about the Iranian navy port visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (emphasis in original):
Sucks that I have no clue where our Navy and Marines’ war ships/subs/aircraft carriers/etc. etc. are right now. We used to have a notion of our US military moves, now I feel like I am flying blind.
There has, indeed, been very little reporting from the MSM on where the Navy and Marine Corps are. It’s worth briefly unpacking this, as there is an art to “messaging” about military forces during a crisis. The Obama administration has hardly spoken about military matters at all during this one – and for some aspects of the situation, that’s not a bad thing. But there are other things that should have been said and haven’t been. Here’s how it breaks down. (I wrote about it here last week.)
First, the crisis in Egypt is internal and political. It’s not ours to solve. That fact governs the US administration’s “information” posture, as it should. It would send the wrong message if Obama talked about Egypt’s political future and at the same time spoke of the US aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean or the amphibious strike group in the Red Sea. He hasn’t done so, which is good.
That said, the US has national interests in the situation, which are independent of – and not in conflict with – the question of greater freedom and better government for the Egyptian people. One is our generic interest in the safety of Americans, which we have wherever a crisis erupts. There are two other unique, high-priority interests, both of which bear on regional security and the security of our allies: namely, safe, secure operation of the Suez Canal, and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, which entails the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula. We have several hundred US troops stationed with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai.
The Obama administration should have spoken about these interests weeks ago. It isn’t necessary to harp on them incessantly, but US leadership consists precisely in stating them in a crisis like the present one. The administration has spoken a number of times about the close cooperation between US and Egyptian military leaders, but not in the context of the specific US interests that underpin regional stability. The way Team Obama has spoken of the military cooperation, it actually sounds instead like it’s mainly relevant to the internal political situation in Egypt.
That implication misses the mark, and badly. Reporting that high-level military leaders are coordinating with each other, but declining to specify what they’re coordinating, while talking only about the internal political situation – these activities, in combination, leave the door wide open to unfavorable interpretation. The number of times Gates has called Tantawi is a log entry, not a statement of policy. What the administration should be talking about is the US interests we regard as most important.
The three specific interests outlined above could each call for military back-up in one way or another. But they should be stated as interests, without going into unnecessary detail about the forces we might deploy. This is a situation in which a few words would go a very long way. We need not state explicitly that “we are prepared to intervene in the Sinai.” Stating that a secure Sinai is one of our paramount interests – from the perspective of the Canal and the peace accord – sends the message.
Sending a clearer public message about the requirement to evacuate Americans from Egypt would have been advisable as well. Readers of DEBKAfile learned last week that the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) amphibious group arrived in the Great Bitter Lake, at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, and speculation was rampant as to what this meant. As outlined at the first link above, Kearsarge could be there for multiple reasons, but chief among them are (a) the potential need to evacuate large numbers of Americans with armed security provided by the Marine Corps, and (b) the fact that the Kearsarge group has been deployed since August 2010 and is due to return home – to the East coast, through the Suez Canal.
It’s hard to say whether the question mark over Canal security was a factor in USS Enterprise (CVN-65) remaining in the Mediterranean during the last week, but it may have been. I doubt it was the primary factor: we probably wanted to have a carrier on-call in the Med once Egypt erupted. It’s not clear whether Enterprise has, in fact, gone through the Canal at this point, but the US Navy website now lists her as being attached to the US Fifth Fleet. That could mean either that she is sitting in Port Said on the Mediterranean side of Egypt, waiting to go through the Canal, or that she is in transit or has just completed it.
Enterprise deployed from the East coast on 13 January and arrived in Lisbon, Portugal for a port visit the day after the first major demonstration in Egypt on the 25th. After entering the Med on 31 January, she conducted flight operations in the central Med. From there she transited to a port visit in Marmaris, Turkey that started on 8 February. Her port visit in Marmaris was reportedly for four days.
Enterprise has been scheduled to head to Southwest Asia – the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean area – where San Diego-based USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) is on-station. USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), which has been deployed since September, has concluded operations there and is probably heading for home port in Bremerton, Washington (no doubt with stops for R&R along the way).
All of these forces are on scheduled deployments. But there is wild and largely inaccurate speculation about them, and there are no statements from the Obama administration to clarify what their presence means wherever they happen to show up. Providing this clarification is not a matter of chasing around after gray-hull sightings, offering explanations; it should be done by separate political statements of US interests. Because Egypt’s government is in flux – i.e., an important geopolitical condition has changed – US interests and policy priorities need stating.
No reference at all need be made to military forces. And when the questions about them start to come, the administration can say, “Well, we don’t talk about those specifics. I’ve stated what our concerns are. I’m confident we can address any contingencies that might crop up, but there’s nothing to be specific about right now. We’ll work with Egypt to ensure that the Canal stays open and safe and that the peace accord in the Sinai is honored.”
If the Kearsarge group, with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked, has been supporting evacuation operations, a public commendation would be nice.