When Secretary of State John Kerry sits down with Egyptian officials during his trip to Cairo this weekend, he will no doubt drag out an old talking point: The United States and Egypt, leaders from both countries are fond of saying, enjoy a "strategic relationship."
Yet for all the talk of common interests and close alignment, few can define what this actually means. President Barack Obama has worked hard to keep relations between Washington and Cairo on track as Egypt has lurched from one political crisis to another over the last two years -- but where exactly is that track supposed to be leading?
It is not at all clear that the president knows. When Hosni Mubarak visited Washington in 2009 after a five-year absence, Obama fell back on platitudes, praising the Egyptian dictator as "a leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States." The substance of ties were almost as empty as the words: Almost three years to the day later, Obama averred that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy.
If Egypt is not an ally and it is not an enemy, then what is it? No one knows. To get around the question, American officials have engaged in remarkably consistent circumlocution. In late 2004, as President George W. Bush's administration was ramping up its "forward-leaning strategy of freedom in the Middle East," a group of Washington-based journalists and think tankers asked a senior American official in Cairo to describe what the United States wanted in Egypt. He replied, "We want whatever Egyptians want."
Such a statement was disingenuous -- the Egyptian government at the time clearly did not want U.S. efforts to promote democracy, even if some of its citizens welcomed it. And what if Egyptians want to break the peace treaty with Israel? Or develop close ties with Iran? But more than that, given the impossibility of determining what the Egyptian people -- clearly not a monolithic group -- really want, it was essentially meaningless.
Fast forward to 2013, and Americans are still groping when it comes to Egypt. After a trip to the Middle East -- which did not include Egypt -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said that it would not be Washington that defined the future of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship: At a gathering at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Feb. 27, he noted the strength of ties was "up to the Egyptians."
This muddle did not always characterize U.S.-Egypt relations. Ever since the early 1950s, when Amb. Jefferson Caffery was cultivating Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has been a strategic prize for the United States. To cold warriors, Egypt's strategic position, the Suez Canal, and its political influence in the Arab world were valuable assets for containing the Soviet Union in the Eastern Mediterranean, and North and East Africa, and making sure the oil kept flowing from the Persian Gulf.