Thursday,22 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Thursday,22 March, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Minimalism or confusion?

US Middle East strategy appears all but floundering under Obama, with the administration unable to read the political maps of Arab Spring countries, writes Ezzat Ibrahim

Al-Ahram Weekly

Wherever Egypt goes, the Middle East follows. In US foreign policy today, the direction of Egypt has caused a lot of confusion to policymakers in Washington and left the White House undecided on thorny issues in bilateral relations following the popular upheaval against former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The massacre in the Washington Navy Yard on Monday has added more fuel to the heated discussions on the role of the president in protecting the homeland and the absence of clear policies in Barack Obama’s second term that could leave a scar on the legacy of his presidency while threatening the national security of the United States.

A defence industry employee used his pass to get into the Washington Navy Yard and went on a deadly shooting rampage Monday, spraying bullets in the hallway and firing from a balcony on workers in an atrium below. Thirteen people were killed, including the gunman. The motive for the assault — the deadliest shooting on a military installation in the US since the tragedy at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009 — was a mystery, investigators said. The new assault has raised concerns regarding the security of military installations throughout the country and the readiness of US agencies to avert possible threats. The mess of the Arab Spring is not the only headache for Obama right now as he is encountering a complicated agenda at home.

Last week, President Obama confronted one of his most difficult moments since winning the White House race in 2008 — over Syria and the inability of the administration to get the authorisation of the US Congress to go to war against President Bashar Al-Assad. Since the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo, early July, US Middle East policy is being questioned by the general public, and specialists. According to recent polls, the US public thinks Obama does not have a clear idea of what he is doing on Syria, and consequently approval of his foreign policy has dropped to the lowest level since his assuming power.

In a recent poll by NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, some 57 per cent disapprove of the US president’s approach to Syria, while just 28 per cent approve. The vast majority of Americans, at 74 per cent, showed an eagerness to see the US focus on problems at home, rather than promote democracy and freedom in other countries. Back in May 2005, only a slight majority of 54 per cent felt similarly.

The Obama administration could not decide about the future of assistance to the new government in Cairo, despite the fact that the principal committee of top national security officials advised Obama to cut and delay arms deliveries to Egypt. Meanwhile, developments in Syria in the last couple of weeks dominated the debate, whether to launch military strikes against the regime in Damascus or to wait for the international community to approve such a step.

In the core of Obama’s foreign policy team, there is a wide range of opinions and views on how to tackle thorny issues in so-called Arab Spring countries. The blurred views of both “international interventionists” and “idealists” within the team have led to mischaracterisations — in Egypt’s case — of the army’s intervention to topple former president Morsi and instating a new government and interim president. One of the failures of the White House is to judge the second wave of the revolution in Egypt without taking into consideration the consequences of Morsi’s rule and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in devastating the democratic experience in less than one year.

Procedural democracy was but cover for the ambitions of the most powerful Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which aimed at gaining a strong grip on power and to exclude all other forces. This happened while the US administration was building strong bonds with the Brotherhood regime. Leading scholars on the Middle East led the administration to a deadlock, insisting on describing what happened as a “military coup” and jumping to false assumptions that the country would descend into civil war between Islamists and the new rulers, backed by the military. This view, also, proved idle, while the White House could not reach a clear decision on the situation.

Now the US administration is thinking of an “exit strategy” from the dilemma over Cairo, starting by holding back and avoiding any missteps that could lead to deterioration in the relationship between Washington and the Egyptian military. “There is no pretence of a strategy — only a reactive racing from fire to fire and the ad-hoc concoction of responses that, like the Egypt aid cut-off or the punitive military strike in Syria, end up stalled or diverted,” Jackson Diehl, of The Washington Post, wrote early this week.

But it is not only the inaction of the US administration that is telling, but also the false assumptions made concerning the situations in both Egypt and Syria, including the inability to read the political maps in both countries.

Obama needs a real fix for his Middle East policy, including the inner circle of advisers. According to Diehl: “It wouldn’t be surprising if Obama made an effort at reset in the coming weeks. We’ll probably hear one of his well-polished speeches devoted to articulating principles that can apply to Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weapons as well as General [Abdel-Fattah] Al-Sisi’s entrenchment, the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as the Iranian nuclear programme. But it probably will be a minimalist approach. Obama will make a doctrine of his gut wish not to spend his time and political capital on the region’s multiple crises.”

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