Needless to say, Middle Easterners have been the prime makers of this muddle. But given the expectations raised by Obama, it’s fair to ask: How much of it is his fault?
I’ve been asking people in and outside the region for an answer to that over the past few weeks: Egyptians, Israelis, Russians, Saudis, Libyans. Predictably, the answers have been widely varying, and often contradictory. But there are two points of consensus: Of course the United States and its president had an influence on how things turned out; and, for the most part, it was a negative one.
Start with Egypt. Obama was foolish, say Israelis and Saudis, to abandon strongman Hosni Mubarak, a faithful U.S. ally. What the old man frequently predicted has come true: Islamists hostile to the West and Israel are about to take over the country.
Wrong, say Egyptian democrats. Obama’s fault was his failure to stand up when the Egyptian military began systematically restoring the old order — culminating with this month’s dissolution of parliament. A key turning point, they say, came in March, when the administration decided to waive congressional conditions tying U. S. military aid to democratic progress — even while the regime persisted with the trial of Egyptians working for U.S. democracy organizations.
“The message the United States sent was totally immoral,” Bahey edin Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies told me last week. “It was clear all the time to the Egyptian revolutionaries that the United States cared only about those who were in power and those they thought might remain in power — the military.”
Angry after Egypt, Saudis are now fuming about Syria — where, they say, the United States is shirking its responsibility to push out the regime of Bashar al-Assad before he plunges the region into a sectarian war.
Wrong, say the Russians. By publicly demanding the downfall of the regime, Obama encouraged Assad’s opposition to take up arms. “Once again you are promoting a regime change without knowing what will come afterward,” lectured a senior Russian official visiting Washington, echoing what his boss Vladimir Putin said to Obama at their summit meeting last week.