When the Syrian army launched its sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, the country’s civil war was on a deep back burner in the Obama administration. Senior officials were in the middle of a policy review to determine how to respond to the bloody crackdown by the Egyptian military that had killed hundreds in Cairo one week earlier. On Aug. 27, a meeting of the “principals committee” of top national security officials agreed on a calibrated package of cuts and delays in arms deliveries to Egypt for Obama’s approval.
Obama never announced a decision. Instead, Egypt was thrust to the deep back burner itself and attention refocused on what to do about the Syrian chemical weapons attack. While the president and his advisors have weaved between ordering a military strike, asking for a Congressional vote and now seeking a diplomatic solution at the United Nations, Egypt’s generals have been methodically constructing a quasi-fascist police state that indulges in anti-American propaganda and is looking considerably more repressive than the former autocracy of Hosni Mubarak.
Just in the last week, a state of emergency allowing mass detentions and summary military trials was extended for two months,a respected journalist was arrested and charged by the military with “spreading false news” and the offices of the secular pro-democracy movement that led the 2011 revolution against Mubarak were raided. Former president Mohamed Morsi and hundreds of members of his Muslim Brotherhood remain jailed, even as a campaign gains momentum to install Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the leader of the July 3 coup against Morsi, as president.
Obama’s passivity in response to these developments, following a public statement on Aug. 23 that “we can’t return to business as usual” with Egypt, is symptomatic of the rudderlessness that has overtaken his Middle East policy. There is no pretense of a strategy — only a reactive racing from fire to fire and the ad-hoc concoction of responses that, like the Egypt aid cutoff or the punitive military strike in Syria, end up stalled or diverted. Far from offering a vision, Obama regularly laments in public that he is compelled to pay attention: “I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education,” he said amid the Syria debate.
The president appears at least to recognize his malaise. Passing the Syria decision to Congress was a way of acknowledging it. In his televised speech last week, he groped for one of his middle-way formulas, declaring that “America is not the world’s policeman” immediately after quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s argument that resistance to foreign entanglements must yield when “ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if Obama made an effort at reset in the coming weeks. We’ll probably hear one of his well-polished speeches devoted to articulating principles that can apply to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons as well as Gen. al-Sissi’s entrenchment, the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as the Iranian nuclear program. But it probably will be a minimalist approach. Obama will make a doctrine of his gut wish not to spend his time and political capital on the region’s multiple crises.
The problem is that the attempt to disengage, to claim that the United States need not take sides in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites or generals and Islamists, only leads back to the same cycle of passivity and ad-hoc reaction in which Obama is now stuck. That’s partly because, as the last month has demonstrated, a stand-back policy can’t hold when more than 600 unarmed protestors are gunned down in a single day in Cairo, or when 1,400 civilians are suffocated by sarin gas outside Damascus. A failure to respond by the only outside power capable of making a difference only invites greater crimes and worse threats to vital U.S. interests.
More to the point, inaction is a way of supporting a side — usually the wrong one. U.S. aid still flows to the Egyptian armed forces while their persecution spreads from Islamists to secular journalists and liberal democrats. The Sunni regime in Bahrain uses U.S.-supplied weapons to suppress a Shiite uprising. And clinging to the sidelines in Syria cedes the battlefield to Assad, Iran and al-Qaeda.
At the root of Obama’s foreign policy dysfunction is a refusal to accept that an American president must take on the history that erupts on his watch — whether it is the fall of the Berlin Wall, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the Arab revolutions — and use his unique power to shape it. It’s no use lamenting that this is not where he wants to spend his time or that the public isn’t interested. In the end, he will be obliged to act; the question is whether he will drive events, or they him.