Obama’s reticence worsens crises

 17 Aug 2013 - 2:09

By Jackson Diehl

There was hope a few months ago that mounting chaos in the Middle East, and a revamping of President Barack Obama’s national security team, would prompt the president to snap out of what looked like a deepening torpor in foreign policy.

Instead, this president’s extraordinary passivity in the face of crisis may have achieved its apotheosis this week. On Wednesday, as Egyptian security forces gunned down hundreds of civilians in the streets of Cairo, an unperturbed Obama shot another round of golf at Martha’s Vineyard. His deputy press secretary was left to explain to reporters that the administration remained firmly committed to not deciding whether what had happened in Egypt was a coup.

When the president finally deigned to address the crisis himself, on Thursday morning, the result was measured rhetoric — “deplorable” — accompanied by a classic half-measure: A biennial military exercise scheduled for next month will be cancelled, sparing the White House some unseemly photo ops. But the deeper relationship with the Egyptian military, including $1.3bn in annual aid, remains in place.

The crisis in Egypt has been distracting attention from the civil war in Syria, where Obama’s stubborn refusal to act has facilitated the emergence of the largest and potentially most dangerous incarnation of Al Qaeda since pre-2001 Afghanistan. Between them, Egypt and Syria prevent most people from thinking much about Yemen — except when an Al Qaeda plot to take over much of the country prompts the closure of the US embassy and a frantic-looking burst of drone strikes. And never mind Bahrain, another close US ally where another autocratic regime is brutally suppressing protests this week without a peep of objection from Washington.

Obama looks like a president in full flight from a world that looks nothing like what he imagined when he took office. The president saw himself soothing US relations with Muslim nations while gently extracting US troops from Iraq and focusing his energy on other regions and issues: Asia; nuclear arms control; Israeli-Palestinian peace. What he got was an epochal upheaval in the very place from which he had hoped to disengage.

All presidents face the challenge of adapting to the problems they are presented with rather than those they expect. It could be argued that George W Bush reacted to the attacks of 9/11 with a too-radical reshaping of his worldview and international ambitions. 

Obama’s response to the Arab revolutions has veered to the opposite extreme: A clinging to his overtaken priorities, coupled with a stubborn refusal to recognise that the Arab crises must be a top priority of his foreign policy.

In the last year, US allies in the Middle East and Europe have marvelled as Obama doggedly pursued a patently futile attempt to engage Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in another round of nuclear arms reduction talks even while tolerating toxic Russian intervention in Syria and rejecting his own national security team’s proposal for US action. They have scratched their heads as Secretary of State John F Kerry, with Obama’s blessing, has made the renewal of moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks his central focus while keeping a safe distance from Egypt.

Obama may have meant to retire the doctrine of the US as the world’s “indispensable nation.” Instead, the disastrous results of his persistent passivity may lead to its revival. WP-BLOOMBERG

By Jackson Diehl

There was hope a few months ago that mounting chaos in the Middle East, and a revamping of President Barack Obama’s national security team, would prompt the president to snap out of what looked like a deepening torpor in foreign policy.

Instead, this president’s extraordinary passivity in the face of crisis may have achieved its apotheosis this week. On Wednesday, as Egyptian security forces gunned down hundreds of civilians in the streets of Cairo, an unperturbed Obama shot another round of golf at Martha’s Vineyard. His deputy press secretary was left to explain to reporters that the administration remained firmly committed to not deciding whether what had happened in Egypt was a coup.

When the president finally deigned to address the crisis himself, on Thursday morning, the result was measured rhetoric — “deplorable” — accompanied by a classic half-measure: A biennial military exercise scheduled for next month will be cancelled, sparing the White House some unseemly photo ops. But the deeper relationship with the Egyptian military, including $1.3bn in annual aid, remains in place.

The crisis in Egypt has been distracting attention from the civil war in Syria, where Obama’s stubborn refusal to act has facilitated the emergence of the largest and potentially most dangerous incarnation of Al Qaeda since pre-2001 Afghanistan. Between them, Egypt and Syria prevent most people from thinking much about Yemen — except when an Al Qaeda plot to take over much of the country prompts the closure of the US embassy and a frantic-looking burst of drone strikes. And never mind Bahrain, another close US ally where another autocratic regime is brutally suppressing protests this week without a peep of objection from Washington.

Obama looks like a president in full flight from a world that looks nothing like what he imagined when he took office. The president saw himself soothing US relations with Muslim nations while gently extracting US troops from Iraq and focusing his energy on other regions and issues: Asia; nuclear arms control; Israeli-Palestinian peace. What he got was an epochal upheaval in the very place from which he had hoped to disengage.

All presidents face the challenge of adapting to the problems they are presented with rather than those they expect. It could be argued that George W Bush reacted to the attacks of 9/11 with a too-radical reshaping of his worldview and international ambitions. 

Obama’s response to the Arab revolutions has veered to the opposite extreme: A clinging to his overtaken priorities, coupled with a stubborn refusal to recognise that the Arab crises must be a top priority of his foreign policy.

In the last year, US allies in the Middle East and Europe have marvelled as Obama doggedly pursued a patently futile attempt to engage Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in another round of nuclear arms reduction talks even while tolerating toxic Russian intervention in Syria and rejecting his own national security team’s proposal for US action. They have scratched their heads as Secretary of State John F Kerry, with Obama’s blessing, has made the renewal of moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks his central focus while keeping a safe distance from Egypt.

Obama may have meant to retire the doctrine of the US as the world’s “indispensable nation.” Instead, the disastrous results of his persistent passivity may lead to its revival. WP-BLOOMBERG