Obama’s Reluctant Mideast Role Tested by Region’s Turmoil

With the death toll in Syria’s civil war approaching 100,000, civil strife in Libya, Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt now in turmoil, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is suddenly the bright spot in the Obama administration’s Mideast policy.

While Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday his three days of shuttle diplomacy produced “real progress,’’ a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains a distant hope. Now that small step is being eclipsed by the struggle for control of Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and a linchpin of American policy in the Arab world.

Yesterday, Egyptians massed by the hundreds of thousands to demand President Mohamed Mursi’s ouster while the Islamist leader’s backers gathered at a dueling rally, with both sides citing fears of a conflagration of violence after days of deadly clashes. Thousands streamed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere across Egypt, saying they were determined to reclaim control of a revolution whose goals have been trampled to cement the power of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“What’s happening in Egypt is another manifestation of what’s happening across the region -- the era of the strong, centralized Arab state giving way to decentralization, sectarianism, incompetent governance, and violence,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. Mideast envoy and now a vice president of the Wilson Center, a Washington public policy research organization.

‘Changing Trend’

“It’s now affecting the largest, most powerful Arab state, but it’s happening everywhere -- Syria, Libya, Iraq,” Miller said. “It’s emblematic of this changing trend. We’re stuck in a region we can’t fix and we can’t leave, and that’s a very bad place for a great power to be. That leaves us drifting.”

Until Kerry threw himself into reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Obama administration had engaged the region cautiously and intermittently. The U.S. played a limited role supporting allies in the effort to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, prompting Republican charges Obama was “leading from behind.” The White House resisted pleas to arm Syrian rebels before reluctantly providing small arms and ammunition, hasn’t dealt with the rising Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq and played up its intention to pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific region.

The limits of American influence lie deeper than Obama’s reluctance to commit American power in the Mideast and North Africa. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq on the false premise that dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the 12-year effort to remake Afghanistan have fed Arab suspicions that not only is America allied with Israel, it also is hostile to Islam.

Reluctant Engagement

Most damaging may be the perception that “America is short of breath,” as then-Syrian foreign minister Abdel Halim Khaddam put it 30 years ago. The U.S.’s retreats from Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and now Afghanistan under presidents of both parties, and its reluctance to engage in Libya and Syria, have strengthened that perception, said a U.S. official with decades of experience in the region.

Rebels in Syria, reformers in Egypt and Libya and pro-democratic activists elsewhere voice the same doubts about America’s reliability, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to critique the current administration’s policies.

“You see a confusion in the administration’s own view on Egypt,” said Miller. While the U.S. had to respect the results of the election in which Mursi won 52 percent of the vote, he said, the Egyptian leader hasn’t been willing to do much with the opposition since then, and the U.S. hasn’t pushed or encouraged him.

Uncertain Future

With the Obama administration reluctant to use its limited leverage and the American-backed Egyptian military trying to stay on the sidelines, the U.S. official said one of America’s most important Arab allies could plunge into anarchy or find itself under harsh Islamic rule by Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“Events are out of control because they’re being driven by years of anger, resentment, despair, desire for change, and those feelings are legitimate because they’re homegrown,” Miller said. “It goes both ways. It can lead to Islamists in control and a lot of violence and incompetent government.”

Some members of Congress already have said they are uneasy about the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. sends to Egypt, and the turmoil now threatens even those ties with Egypt, said Tamara Coffman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization in Washington, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

Preserving Cooperation

“The United States has managed to achieve its most important priority in its relationship with Egypt since the revolution, which is the preservation of its security cooperation and the preservation of Egypt’s commitment to shared security interests, including the peace treaty with Israel,” she said in an interview.

Still, she said, “If the political turmoil in Egypt continues, and if Egypt cannot move onto a more stable and democratic trajectory, I don’t know that security cooperation will be sustainable over time.”

Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, increasingly under siege from its own population, might turn toward nationalist jingoism that could undermine the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which in turn could threaten security cooperation with Washington, Miller said.

‘Unhappy End’

“We’re heading for an unhappy end in Egypt, how unhappy isn’t clear,” said Miller. “I don’t see a happy way out of this. The Muslim Brotherhood can’t govern, the military won’t govern, and the opposition doesn’t know how to govern, which means no one is in charge.”

If the protests don’t change the status quo, there may be no quick end in sight to the administration’s Egypt challenge.

“What is very worrisome is that I don’t think the opposition has more of a plan now than they ever had in 2011,” said Marina Ottaway, senior counsel at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “They still think that if the demonstrations are large enough, Mursi will simply resign and somehow the Muslim Brotherhood will be put in its place. And there’s definitely a section of the opposition that talks very openly about bringing in the military, that the military needs to take power again, and the military will give power to the secular groups.”

Disorganized Opposition

“The opposition hasn’t done the things it needs to do in order to organize,” she said in an interview. “They speak to the West, they don’t talk to people in the countryside. They have not set up organizations.”

The opposition’s only message is its shared opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi, Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “Other than that, there’s not much that binds these groups together,” he said.

The political situation in Egypt is “devilishly difficult to understand, let alone to resolve,” Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said in an e-mail.

“There are at least three principal political forces at work: Islamists, secularists, and the old state, some of whom are secularists, some of whom are observant Muslims, but none of whom are liberals,” she said.

Neither the U.S. nor Israel want Egypt to become a failed state, said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Mideast envoy and adviser for a succession of U.S. presidents since Ronald Reagan.

“But neither of us is going to determine Egypt’s future -- only Egyptians can do that, and today, there seems to be little common ground for restoring stability,” Ross said.

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