Barack Obama's great MidEast disappearing act

Obama’s reluctance to lead – to get out in front of events in the region -- comes from his deep-rooted anxiety about the US’s role in world affairs

So that's where he is...
Taylor Dibbert
On 11 July 2013 09:10

It should come as no surprise that the Obama administration’s recent statements on Egypt have been wildly contradictory.

This reminds me of when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell, when President Obama looked very behind in the Middle East. At first he showed support to Mubarak before belatedly pronouncing in February 2011 that the transition in Egypt “must begin now.”

Now that the government of Mohamed Morsi has been removed, some are saying that the US should back the generals. While others are saying that’s a bad idea. Other people have adopted a wait-and-see approach, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It’s fine if people want to take that approach, but I’m very confused as to how the sacking of Mr. Morsi wouldn’t be termed a coup.

Whether Mr. Morsi had autocratic tendencies or not, he was the democratically elected leader of Egypt. The most obvious reason, of course, is because the Obama administration doesn’t want to turn off the aid faucet, perhaps believing that halting the flow of aid would further limit the administration’s (already limited) ability to shape events in Egypt.

Either way, it is imperative that Obama clearly articulate what’s at stake and how his administration plans to face this challenge.

For Obama in the Middle East, an unwillingness to lead isn’t exactly a new development. In the spring of 2009, it looked like Obama went out of his way not to support the Green Movement in Iran.

Obama has also been criticized for not having a strategy in Syria; such criticism appears to be justified.

Besides, what do the words ‘red line’ actually mean in the Obama White House?

In fact, it’s the total lack of clarity – surrounding virtually all aspects of Obama’s Syria policy – that has further undermined his credibility as a leader and left the US in a worse position that it was in when the violence initially broke out there.

Others have said the Obama administration mishandled the Arab Spring entirely.

Nobody is claiming that revolutions or coups are easy to predict, but if an American president always appears to have policies that are reactive, if events always appear to be passing him by, that’s not a good thing.

I don’t think anybody’s asserting that – when it comes to Egypt – the stakes are not high. As Martin Indyk has recently written, “Egypt is the largest, militarily most-powerful, culturally most-influential, and geostrategically most-important country in the Arab world.” But, when it comes to this president, if past events in the Middle East are any guide, people should be very worried.

There are both humanitarian and geopolitical reasons why Obama’s lack of policy clarity has been unacceptable. Nonetheless, is it now reasonable to expect more prevarication and dithering as it relates to Egypt?

Barack Obama came into office talking big on foreign policy. He said he would close Guantánamo Bay and get the US out of the Middle East. He even talked of a world without nuclear weapons. Clearly, at the heart of Obama’s drone escalation, lies his aversion for using US troops abroad.

Obama simply cannot get out of the Middle East fast enough, but current events won’t let him. Obama’s reluctance to lead – to get out in front of events in the region -- comes from his deep-rooted anxiety about the US’s role in world affairs, especially in that part of the world.

Less than a year into his second term, the reality is that Obama remains extremely uncomfortable with the projection of American power abroad, which partly explains his propensity for drone attacks.

Nonetheless, by failing clearly to articulate what the US’s policy goals should be and continuing to abdicate leadership, he further undermines America’s already limited influence.

In addition to denouncing the Egyptian military’s quick power grab, Obama should acknowledge that the ouster of Morsi was in fact a coup. Prevarication tends to produce suboptimal policy responses; Obama has been figuring that out the hard way. How much longer will it take before he learns that lesson?

Taylor Dibbert is a consultant. He is also a columnist for International Policy Digest and the author of the book 'Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth'

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