Three years after outlining his vision for better relations with the Arab and Muslim world, President Barack Obama finds his administration struggling to find its footing and a unifying strategy to deal with the fallout of an Arab Spring that dislodged dictators and touched off seismic shifts in the region’s politics.
Civil war rages in Syria, where Iran has moved in to help dictator Bashar Assad while the United States has stood back. In Libya, where the U.S. did help oust a dictator, four Americans were slain last week in an assault on the U.S. consulate. And in Egypt, where the U.S. helped oust a longtime ally, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy, breaching its walls and burning American flags.
The death at the Benghazi consulate of Ambassador Christopher Stevens has thrust foreign policy into the presidential race, sparked concerns over the quality of the administration’s intelligence gathering and raised questions about the risks of sending U.S. diplomats into troubled areas to promote democracy.
Some analysts suggest another shortcoming is the failure to yet to spell out a grand objective.
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“They are dealing with a hugely complicated, rapidly moving situation,” said Edward Djerejian, founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “But they’ve yet to craft an overarching policy toward the region, and whoever the next president is should be prepared to do that.”
Critics say lack of a cohesive message sends inconsistent signals to U.S. allies and those longing for change in the Middle East.
“There’s a random collection of reactive policies without a real thread that binds,” said Michael Singh, a George W. Bush administration national security adviser who’s now a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s very much a counterterrorism policy with the window dressing of political and economic reform. They’ve cast it as case by case, but I think that’s probably seeking to cast it in as best a light as you can.”
The administration insists that Obama has laid out a clear doctrine and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a region in various stages of upheaval.
“What you’ve heard the president articulate is a consistent set of principles and support for universal rights,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “That process is going to look different in different countries. And this is a generational process.”
Some analysts agree that a sweeping strategy may be unrealistic for a region that includes 22 countries, each with its own complicated calculus of politics, demographics and value to U.S. strategic interests.
“You can’t have one strategy and you shouldn’t want one,” said William Quandt, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Virginia, who worked on the first Camp David peace talks under President Jimmy Carter. “It’s not a single phenomenon that we’re witnessing, it’s colossal upheaval.”
Still, Obama’s approach has been panned as inconsistent: In Egypt, Obama took a public role in helping oust Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally; in Libya, the U.S. intervened to remove strongman Moammar Gadhafi, but only with its NATO allies in the lead.
In Syria, Obama has authorized humanitarian assistance and non-lethal aid, such as radios, to a loose coalition of rebel factions fighting to oust President Bashar Assad. He’s called repeatedly for Assad to step down, but he’s refused to send weapons and has resisted becoming deeply involved in the 17-month-old conflict that has killed an estimated 20,000 people.
And in Bahrain, Obama offered a belated and fairly muted rebuke when the government cracked down on its political opposition. Analysts suggest U.S. national security interests may trump the pursuit of democracy: Bahrain’s monarchy has the support of Saudi Arabia and the country is home port to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The administration has pledged billions in U.S. aid to the region in an effort to see that democracy takes hold. It’s sought to work with political groups and boost economic growth amid fears that corruption and poverty could feed more unrest, particularly among the young.
Analysts note that the task is considerably more difficult in countries like Libya, which has no experience with viable government institutions, unlike Egypt which had a state government.
In recent days, the administration found itself pushing back against congressional calls to cut aid to Egypt and Libya in the wake of the violence. Administration officials and analysts caution against overreactions to the flare-ups.
“What you’re going to see is more work to deepen diplomatic and economic ties with these countries,” Vietor said. “The larger issue is that these countries are transitioning from dictatorships to democracy, and that process can be messy.”
The administration points to some progress in both countries: Libyan forces helped repel the militants who stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi; and after prodding from Obama, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi spoke out against the protests and promised to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel.
Morsi, along with Libyan National Congress President Mohamed Magariaf, and the leaders of Yemen and Tunisia – the other countries that cast out dictators – will join Obama and other world leaders next week at the United Nations in New York. Neither is scheduled to meet privately with Obama.
Some foreign policy experts say it’s unrealistic to expect the U.S. to drive events in the Middle East.
“We’re not the central actors here. The people in the region are, and they’re deciding for themselves,’” said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’ve been forced to respond to events, but it’s in keeping with our aspirations for democracy.”