In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional overreach now has the country on the brink of another revolt, one that might topple the Islamist government. The New York Times reports: “Resignations rocked the government of President Mohamed Morsi on Thursday as tanks from the special presidential guard took up positions around his palace and the state television headquarters after a night of street fighting between his Islamist supporters and their secular opponents that left at least 6 dead and 450 wounded.”

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in Brussels on Dec. 5
Kevin Lamarque, Pool/Associated Press

Whether Morsi is toppled, crushes the opposition or is chastened matters greatly to the future of Egypt and to the U.S. relationship with Egypt. It is not clear what we can do to aid secular leaders, and in fact by embracing Morsi in such an unqualified fashioned we are now in a poor position to help them. That said, the U.S. should be very clear that use of force against the Egyptian people will have serious consequences for our relationship and for our aid and that the foundation for continued, robust U.S.-Egyptian cooperation is an Egyptian government that respects human rights, including those of religious minorities. Unfortunately, this administration has been exceedingly poor in articulating American values and trying to influence events in positive ways. I asked a conservative scholar who has been critical of the administration what we can do to encourage the forces of secularization. He cracked, “If we can, rest assured we won’t.” That unfortunately sums up the lackluster diplomacy that passes for “smart” foreign policy under President Obama.

Meanwhile, consternation is growing over the prospect that Syria is preparing use of chemical weapons. The Associated Press reports, “Diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war moved forward Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joining Russia’s foreign minister and the U.N. peace envoy to the Arab country for extraordinary three-way talks that suggested Washington and Moscow might finally unite behind a strategy as the Assad regime weakens.” It may be that the prospect of chemical weapons can jolt Russia and others into stronger action, the absence of which has served as an excuse for the administration to do nothing.

While the fear of chemical weapons may actually induce action against Assad (the silver lining to be sure in the storm clouds), most Middle East observers in the U.S. generally believe that Bashar al-Assad would be terribly foolish to use such weapons, not least because he knows full well that it may be the only provocation that might get the U.S. off the sidelines. Nevertheless, the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Iran-allied despots raises the possibility that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah might gain access to such weapons. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton tells me, “The fact that the administration is only now worried about the chemical weaponns shows yet again how they have misunderstood Syria. Use in Syria would be bad, but a potentially far graver risk is that terrorists get their hands on the stockpiles and remove them from Syria for use elsewhere. That’s why we should consider destroying or securing the chemical weapons and agents.”

The troublesome situation highlight several concerns. First, the U.S. government is entirely reactive to events, and slow to respond. Lacking an overarching approach to the region, we are forever back on our heels. Friends and adversaries see this as well. Second, imagine how much more hair-raising this would all be if Iran had nuclear weapons, with the potential that radical Islamists in the region would gain access to fissile material? The notion that we can “contain” a nuclear-armed Iran is ludicrous; we cannot contain a chemical-armed Syria nor move Islamists governments in ways that promote peace and stability. And finally, who thinks UN Ambassador Susan Rice would be up to handling some (any?) of this? Her lack of credibility and stature would only further diminish our influence.