WASHINGTON — From Egypt to Syria to Iraq and beyond, the Obama administration is determined to show it will only go so far to help save nations in chaos from themselves.
President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he favors a foreign policy of consultation and negotiation, but not intervention, in the persistent and mostly violent upheavals across the Mideast. And even as Egypt's military overthrew its Islamist government on Wednesday, Washington maintained a measured approach to nationwide turbulence in one of the United States' most important Arab allies.
In a firmly worded statement, Obama called on the Egyptian military to relinquish power to a democratically elected civilian government and to resist arresting ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters. He also said the U.S. will review whether Egypt is still eligible for $1.5 billion that Washington gives in economic and military aid annually.
Calling himself "deeply concerned" about the turmoil, Obama nonetheless maintained "that, ultimately the future of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people."
"The longstanding partnership between the United States and Egypt is based on shared interests and values, and we will continue to work with the Egyptian people to ensure that Egypt's transition to democracy succeeds," Obama said.
It was a muted response compared to the uproar that has for days gripped Egyptians, many of whom in turn have openly jeered the U.S. for appearing too close to Morsi, despite his hard-line Islamist policies. The White House has gamely struggled since Morsi's election more than a year ago to embrace his presidency, despite fears that his Muslim Brotherhood power base would revert to its anti-American and anti-Israel roots instead of taking a more moderate stance towards peace.
It should come as little surprise that Obama, who is grappling with a recovering economy, a war-weary public at home and diminished U.S. status as a global superpower abroad, would not wade into foreign conflicts. Obama campaigned by promising to end the war in Iraq, which he did in 2011; he now plans to withdraw most, if not all, U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year and inevitably will face pitched pleas from Kabul to reconsider as the deadline nears.
U.S. polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone," Obama wrote in his 2010 National Security Strategy. "Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power."
Experts say the administration's Mideast strategy may be a not-so-subtle reminder that the U.S. is no longer willing – or able – to play either world policeman or peacekeeper. Such reluctance has been all too clear in the White House's policy for Syria, where Obama refused until last month to give weapons to Syrian rebels who have been battling for more than two years to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
An estimated 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting in Syria, and Obama has been under intense pressure from some in Congress and allies abroad to give the rebels robust military aid. Instead, the White House agreed to give a tepid mix of guns, ammunition and shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades, and only did so after U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.
Other Sunni-dominated Mideast nations, most notably Qatar, have provided heavier weapons to help the rebels beat back Iranian forces and aid that is flowing to Assad's regime.
Rebel commanders have been underwhelmed by the U.S. support, saying they need enough firepower to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to stop his tanks and heavy artillery. The Free Syrian Army, which is made up of some opposition forces, also wants allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent Assad's superior air power from crushing the rebels or killing civilians.
The White House is, at best, highly reluctant to create such a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.
Even American officials say the help to Syria is not enough.
The light weapons are "clearly not only insufficient, it's insulting," Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican proponent of taking a bigger military role in Syria, said recently.
McCain and several other hawkish Republicans also have criticized Obama for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, where violence has dramatically escalated since their departure 18 months ago.
The Obama administration agreed to the longstanding 2011 withdrawal deadline, which was set by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, after negotiations fell through to keep some U.S. forces in Iraq. But American officials involved in the negotiations have blamed the White House for making only a weak effort to keep troops in the country and being all too happy when the Shiite-led government in Baghdad refused to let them stay.
Despite nearly nine years of war that aimed to stabilize Iraq – during which nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and about $800 billion in taxpayer money was spent – near-daily bombings and other attacks continue. And the White House rarely, if ever, discusses Iraq except to pat itself on the back for leaving.
In June alone, 761 Iraqis were killed and nearly 1,800 wounded in terror-related violence, the U.N. envoy in Baghdad said in a statement this week. Comparatively, that's about twice as many killed in the deadliest month of 2011 before the American troops left, according to data from the British-based Iraq Body Count.
But in the case of Egypt, a former Obama-era senior diplomat said Wednesday the White House may no longer have enough sway to advise a political transition – even if it wanted to do so.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state from late 2009 until early this year said the U.S. should be urging the new Egyptian government to stabilize its roiled economy quickly and prevent the country from plunging even deeper into political instability.
"There's a role for the United States to be weighing in," Wittes said. However, "for better or worse, we're in a position now where the United States has to some extent alienated the political opposition, and by not standing with Morsi, I suppose they've also alienated the Muslim Brotherhood."
"So I don't think the U.S. finds itself with a lot of ready audiences," Wittes said.
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