Did the bomber pilots of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt really act without Washington's consent when they bombed Libya? It's extremely unlikely.
The Americans have a clear motive to lie, as they have done so brazenly. A joint statement signed by Washington (and Paris and Berlin and Rome and London, all nations which vigorously back both the military president in Egypt and the absolute monarchs of the United Arab Emirates) worried that "outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya's democratic transition".
US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told the press immediately on hearing of the strikes: "We understand there were airstrikes undertaken in recent days by the UAE and Egypt."
The department later back-tracked, with the same spokeswoman saying the information she had was "inaccurate", and that her comments were intended to "refer to countries that have been reportedly involved and not to speak to whether they were involved or their kind of involvement". A Freudian slip followed by a backtrack worthy of a nation with no visible strategy in the Middle East.
Even eminent outlets such as the New York Times (to be expected), the Guardian (unfortunate as I also write for them, though not on Middle Eastern matters) and the BBC (blame it on the cuts) think otherwise. The Guardian has even produced an animated presentation explaining these sorties as a temper tantrum from the Gulf States, unimpressed by Barack Obama and his Shia-loving ways and concessions to naughty nuclear Iran.
Never mind that the UAE are delighted that de-sanctioned trade routes across the Straits of Hormuz are now ripe for exploitation, or that Riyadh has just entertained a senior official from Tehran to discuss fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq.
The faux surprise of course came from that most reliable of sources: Mr Anonymous Official of the US State Department who briefed the New York Times with the official version of events. Egypt continues to deny their hand in the strikes, and the Emiratis are yet to grace us with a response.
Let's remember, the Bin Zayeds are extremely good friends of America. So extreme that it's highly unlikely they'd have taken a risky punt in a no-fly zone policed by NATO (albeit a no-fly zone that has at times resembled an Emmental cheese just past its sell-by date). Sources close to the Riyadh government whisper that they were in full accord with the two sorties.
Riyadh's consent makes sense – given Riyadh, Abu Dhabi (and the whiny Al-Khalifas in Bahrain) are currently engaged in a shouting match with Qatar over their support for Islamic extremists, the exact kind of Islamic extremists who Egyptian and Emirati pilots had in their cross-hairs. Also given very little gets done in the Gulf Cooperation Council without Riyadh's consent.
Last year, American Congress approved the sale of an estimated $5 billion worth of Lockheed Martin hardware to Abu Dhabi, in the form of 25 F-16 Block 60 fighters. According to press reports at the time, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were also in line for "advanced standoff weapons" – gunspeak for high-tech and highly explosive missiles. The munitions, which also included "bunker-busting" bombs, brought the total deal to close to $10 billion. Abu Dhabi is entrusted with the big guns.
The Pentagon reportedly consulted with Congress – and may have laid out the obvious strategic advantage of having two Middle Eastern states, both with a vigorous taste for combating Islamic extremism and with a long-standing relationship with the United States – armed so ferociously. The United Arab Emirates also has a US manufactured missile defence system, comparable to the "Iron Dome" in Israel, which was sold to them by Pentagon-endorsed American defence companies.
Then in January, Abu Dhabi media reported even closer ties: "UAE troops could soon be trained in counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, infrastructure protection and national defence by the US Marine Corps." Reporters cited a request to Congress from the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency for $150 million.
During the conflict in Afghanistan, the UAE's Special Forces were the only Arab personnel to undertake full-scale operations alongside American troops. In Libya in 2011 – the UAE deployed a dozen fighter jets for combat missions under NATO command. In Somalia in 1992, the UAE fought under US Central Command to "secure the environment and provide humanitarian relief". Naval personnel are also involved with ongoing anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. In the Bosnia-Kosovo conflict, the UAE was among the first non-NATO states to express support for NATO's air operations. The UAE then participated in peacekeeping operations. And, in the first Gulf war, the UAE was again eager to express support for the American-led liberation of Kuwait.
Abu Dhabi has also become Washington's partner of choice for their Global Counterterrorism Forum – a network of nations primed to fight Islamic extremism and terrorist attacks (it appears not to be going well).
Announced just after the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, the initiative has seen American trainers working with the European Union and 29 other countries, including 11 Muslim nations, to co-ordinate and share resources for fighting Islamic extremism. That's the exact kind of Islamic extremism that the recent raids on Libya were designed to beat back.
Abu Dhabi has become the de facto operations centre for the forum, headquartered at the Global Centre for Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism. Upon its inauguration, attended by US State Department dignitaries, the lead spokesperson on Washington's side said that Abu Dhabi had been chosen because "the US and Abu Dhabi have a very good working relationship. Both recognise the threat posed to people around the world, and it is a matter of a country stepping up and saying this is important and wanting to play a key role."
What about Egypt? They've been hinting at a Libyan excursion for weeks, especially given the Islamic extremists are so close and present a far more perilous threat than the amateurish and otherwise engaged Hamas, who Al-Sisi also seems intent to destroy.
Of course Al-Sisi wouldn't wish to jeopardise his supply of American teargas and other more deadly munitions, in case Egyptians realise they've been duped into military rule and rise up. Nor would he wish to endanger the billions in American aid which, along with Gulf funding, is shoring up an exhausted post-revolution economy. Washington is even prepared to let that military coup slide – unlocking half a billion dollars in military aid a couple of months ago. So again, stepping out of line, going behind Washington's back, asserting their independence, or whichever other cliché of reportage the Western commentariat care to employ, would be somewhat surprising.
The American viewing public is captivated by TV reports about the Islamic State in Iraq. Chaos in Libya, in no small part due to American meddling, is for the moment lower down the agenda. This is useful for Obama, especially as his bombers are slamming targets around precious Kurdistan (forget the other genocide-threatened minorities of Iraq, they're not sitting on enough oil).
A direct American incursion into Libya would have been an unhelpful reminder of what can go wrong when America tries to bomb Islamic extremists into submission. The hangover from the horrific killing of an American ambassador in Benghazi in 2012 is still keenly felt. And who wants to fight a war on two fronts these days?
Reaching out to well-armed friends in the Gulf to do the dirty work, then denying American pre-meditation and involvement, provides a plausibly deniable response to the success of violent radical "Islam" in Libya. Obama may at times seem listless and unsure in the Middle East, staggering from crisis to crisis like a drunk old general with an unloaded gun and a nervous stutter, but in one way he is smarter than Bush. "W" was stupid enough to go public with his wars – but Obama now cloaks his dagger in the language of drones and "regional partners". A pity he won't just admit it. Although to be fair – the ever consistent US State Department has now admitted, they did know about the strikes, but said they were a bad idea.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.