Is the Obama administration applying the Syria playbook in Egypt?

August 19, 2013

Pro-military protesters wave posters of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and U.S. President Obama in Cairo. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

There was a period after the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011, when it looked like the United States had rethought its old approach to the Middle East, of a shaky status quo held together by distasteful but reliable dictators. Mubarak had been a staunch ally for decades, after all, but he was also an autocrat whose regime was ultimately doomed by corruption and heavy-handed authoritarianism. The Obama administration, apparently seeing that the formula was broken, started taking risks.

It started with the United States reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood, far from a pro-American organization but clearly one that was popular among Egyptians and would thrive in politics. When Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi moved to suppress an uprising, the United States joined European powers in destroying his regime, though he'd helped Washington fight terrorism and sold energy to Europe. Even Yemen's pro-American leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, came under U.S. pressure to step down. Tension with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies was taken as a necessary cost of Washington's more long-term thinking.

In a speech in May 2011, President Obama announced that the status quo would no longer hold. "Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder," he said, implicating even the United States: "A failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world."

In the two long and disappointing years since the summer of 2011, it's no secret that the Obama administration has scaled back its ambitions for the Arab Spring. As democracy movements succumbed to revanchism, sectarianism, nationalism and disorder, the United States saw fewer opportunities and more risks. But it's also returned to some of the guiding principles from before the Arab Spring's supposed wake-up call that those ways had to change. A certain playbook seems to be emerging, one that the administration deployed first in Syria and now perhaps in Egypt, in which the United States values short-term stability, high-level diplomatic relationships and, above all, an aversion to risk.

It's not hard to see why the Obama administration might have been scared away from its earlier ambition in the Middle East, and not just because of the setbacks in the region. Any White House cares first and foremost about domestic politics, and this administration was punished severely for its leadership on Libya; many of the same political voices that demanded the intervention spent months hammering the White House when, in the foreseeably dangerous post-conflict disorder of Benghazi, a militant group succeeded in attacking the local U.S. diplomatic outpost and killing the ambassador. The White House's efforts to reach out to Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia, meanwhile, received condemnation and criticism at home. Pragmatic, long-view Middle East watchers turned out to represent a fairly narrow slice of the American electorate.

In domestic political terms, which are after all the primary drivers of any political institution, the White House apparently decided that its safest bet in the Middle East was to minimize risk. Any successes would be hard-won and politically unrewarded, it concluded, while any setbacks could become political disasters. The best way to minimize risk is to adhere as closely to the status quo as possible, to make few waves and to keep a lid on any emerging conflicts.

This playbook has not worked wonders in Syria. Obama's approach to Syria, which he articulated most fully in a June interview with Charlie Rose, has been to seek a negotiated political solution. In other words, he wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to strike a peace deal with the rebels, presumably with the support of the foreign governments that have their hands in the conflict. That's led him to offer some non-extremist rebels a modicum of support, try to orchestrate some high-level diplomacy with interested foreign governments (mainly Russia and Persian Gulf states) and to condemn the Assad regime, but not much else. The idea of "owning" the conflict and its outcome seems to be anathema, even more so than any particular outcome. Bloody stalemate has become the status quo.

That playbook appears to be getting some use now in Egypt. As in Syria, the United States has reacted to each turn in ways that seem designed to reduce the risk to U.S. interests. The administration's immediate reaction after the July 3 coup, which has since guided it through the crisis, was to play the middle and to avoid any strong positions. Its first dilemma, over whether or not to label events a "coup," was more broadly a choice between supporting democracy and rule of law by condemning the coup or privileging Mubarak-style order by backing the generals. The United States did its best to choose neither.

Instead of taking a stand on the conflict, the White House tried, as in Syria, to manage it from the behind the scenes. As in Syria, the conflict has slid out of control. Six weeks after the Egyptian military defied back-channel American pleas not to go ahead with a coup, it defied back-channel American pleas not to crack down on civilian protesters, killing hundreds.

In the White House's apparent thinking, refusing to make a decision on whether a coup occurred, or to fully condemn either the military crackdown or the pro-Brotherhood violence against churches, would allow the United States to retain its influence with the military and the Brotherhood, as well as its unique position as a go-between that could quietly moderate between them. But neither of these assets has proven particularly valuable in resolving the crisis, which appears well beyond quiet moderation. Military leader Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi gave, in an interview with The Post, some extremely clear signals from that he is not interested in preserving Egypt's relationship with Washington just for the sake of the relationship. Still, the United States has appeared unwilling to take any steps that might risk the 34-year-old status quo with Egypt, or that might decisively tip the balance in Egypt one way or the other.

In both Syria and Egypt, the Obama administration seems to be straining to preserve a diplomatic and military balance that few observers believe is sustainable, if it even still exists. One of the lessons of the Mubarak ouster was supposed to be that Washington can't look the other way on unsustainable status quos in the Middle East anymore; better to force a solution, however uncertain, than wait for things to combust on their own. Staving off catastrophe only works for so long.

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Max Fisher · August 19, 2013