Now part of a bitter U.S. presidential campaign, the attacks this week will test the diplomacy Obama will use to salvage two badly damaged relationships, as well as his broader remedial project with the Islamic world. But first he must define again who are his nation’s friends and how in the future to describe them.
In an interview this week, Obama said he would no longer call Egypt an “ally” after the mob attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, nor would he refer to the influential Arab nation as an enemy. The answer drew a response from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who listed ways Egypt could restore its relationship as an ally of the United States.
But experts say the term “ally” has become a Cold War relic, virtually meaningless in the Middle East, where public opinion was long silenced but freedom of speech seems to be emerging. Foreign aid, diplomatic assistance and even direct military intervention no longer guarantee loyalties from newly elected governments or newly liberated people.
The challenge for Obama, a foreign policy pragmatist, is to define the changing relationships in a way that captures the nascent political forces shaping each and protects U.S. interests.
“ ‘Ally’ to me sounds like a partner whose interests coincide with yours on whatever the most important issue of the day is,” said Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He said the social media term “frenemy” was not far off in capturing the nature of the new alliances.
Like Egypt, Pakistan is a country essential to U.S. interests but at times difficult to call an ally. It receives more than $2 billion in U.S. aid a year and has lost thousands of people in its fight against armed Islamist groups within its borders.
But while the Obama administration and the Pakistani government have a shared interest in fighting al-Qaeda, which threatens each, Pakistan’s intelligence service is less interested in seeing a weakened Taliban, a major American goal.
The attacks this week in the Middle East and North Africa highlighted how the United States, despite Obama’s support of some of the popular uprisings in the region, has evolved from a heavy-handed symbol of authority to a more vulnerable target since the collective uprisings known as the Arab Spring began unfolding early last year.
White House officials have said the attacks in Libya and Egypt were provoked by an Internet video mocking the prophet Muhammad. But Arab demonstrators across the region appeared to use the video to draw people to rallies where the United States and its chief ally in the region, Israel, became the central focus of their anger. In Libya, the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi appeared to be planned.