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Posted at 08:30 AM ET, 05/10/2011

Will the U.S. do better with the new Egypt?

Will Inboden writes in Foreign Policy:

Two developments from the Middle East over the weekend show the fragility and uncertain direction of the “Arab Spring.” First, this weekend’s news from Egypt of attacks by Salafist Muslims on Coptic Christians, which reportedly left at least 12 people dead, underscores the threat of violent Islamists and religious intolerance to Egypt’s political transition. Second, the ongoing protests in Syria against the Assad regime, and the West’s tentative and feeble response, demonstrate that the popular desire for liberty in the region has not abated, even in the face of escalating violence.

The administration’s spinners are quick to suggest we have limited influence. To the degree it’s true, it stems, as Inboden suggests, from a “complete lack of an actual region-wide strategy.” He argues:

The administration’s responses to the convulsions thus far have appeared as more ad hoc and reactive. It is one thing to acknowledge that the particular circumstances in each country are different, as are U.S. interests. It is another thing to have failed — some five months now into this revolutionary season — to have developed a strategic framework that helps determine U.S. priorities and guide U.S. actions (or inactions, as the case may be) in any specific circumstance while helping steer the region towards a better future

Several points are worth noting here. First, Syria and Egypt are distinct situations. Egypt has its problems, but we have longstanding ties to that country. The recent Salafist violence is cause for great concern, but is a reflection of sectarian strains and not government policy. Syria is a far different matter. I spoke to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies last night. He was blunt: “Syria is an enemy of the U.S,, a leading state sponsor of terrorism.” He adds that if we can assassinate Osama bin Laden, then we should at the very least be able “to talk about toppling our enemies.” That we have instead mouthed encouraging words to Bashar al-Assad, he says, is “unthinkable.”

Second, with regard to those who are not enemies of the U.S, the president needs to close the gap between rhetoric and action. Obama gave a speech in Cairo touting the value of religious freedom but hasn’t done anything to support that worthy value. (“Religious freedom promotion in a strategic country like Egypt can and should be done by a full range of US officials, from low level political officers to Ambassadors and Assistant Secretaries and up to Secretary Clinton and diplomat-in-chief President Obama. To begin this means that all US officials should make clear in their private and public statements to Egyptian officials that religious freedom protections are indispensable for a truly democratic Egypt.”) As Schanzer puts it, “We haven’t put people on notice” as to our expectations.

Third, our quietude on Egypt is a telling indicator, as is the administration’s inertness on Syria, as to whether Obama has turned over a new leaf or whether the Osama bin Laden hit was a one-shot deal, so to speak. If Obama now understands the importance of leading from the front and the ability of the United States to use the full array of its powers (economic, diplomatic, covert, etc.) to advance its national interests, and if he has put aside the residual liberal guilt that the United States is the source of much of the suffering in the Third World, then we’ll see some significant change in policy.

To put it differently: progress would be a sign of any Middle East policy that is more than platitudes and foot-dragging. Schanzer says, ”What is the Obama doctrine? There is none.” And in lacking one, we encourage our foes and baffle our friends.

By  |  08:30 AM ET, 05/10/2011

Categories:  foreign policy

 
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