The Obama administration’s shifting stance on Egypt has left the United States bereft of influence as convulsions grip the Arab world’s most populous country, according to critics. At home, Republicans have also slammed the White House strategy.
One year ago, President Obama threw his support behind the freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, after abandoning a longtime U.S. ally and bulwark against radical Islam, Hosni Mubarak.
The administration’s policies have left the United States “very poorly positioned” to influence the outcome in Egypt, said Tamara Wittes, a former top Middle East official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department who now heads the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Obama, Wittes told The Hill, has “alienated the secular forces” fighting for supremacy in Egypt and simultaneously “failed to stand up for Morsi in his hour of need.”
The chaos in Egypt has emboldened Obama’s critics on the right.
“In what has to be one of the most stunning diplomatic failures in recent memory,” Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote this week in Foreign Policy, “the United States is – in both perception and reality – entrenched as the partner of a repressive, Islamist regime and the enemy of the secular, pro-democracy opposition.”
Obama, former House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told Newsmax TV more succinctly, “bet on the wrong folks time and time again.”
The fall-out has ramifications not only for Egypt but for the entire Middle East, where the Obama administration faces criticism that it has lacked a cohesive goal and has been too slow to respond to events.
That’s especially true in Syria, where the president’s belated call for the United States to arm the Syrian rebels has run into bipartisan opposition from Cruz and others in Congress despite unanimous disdain for Bashar Assad.
Obama could immediately have joined the call for Assad’s ouster when protests first broke out in March 2011, Cruz wrote, instead of waiting five months.
“Today,” he wrote, “some 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and both Hezbollah and al Qaeda are engaged in a vicious civil war – one the president is now dragging the United States into, albeit with no clear purpose or strategy.”
The administration has been taking flak from some corners since the beginning of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution in January 2011 after embracing protesters’ demands that Mubarak abandon power immediately instead of serving out the eight months left in his term.
John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s envoy to the United Nations, told Fox News that this past week’s events prove his contention that abandoning Mubarak was a “big mistake.”
Wittes, however, said both the Obama and Bush administrations had been “quite consistent in pressing him for greater respect for human rights” – to no effect.
She instead criticized U.S. policies since Morsi won Egypt’s first free elections in June 2012.
Despite his uncertain democratic credentials and razor-thin victory – Morsi won with 51.7 percent of the vote after several prominent candidates were disqualified – the Obama administration began courting the new president immediately so as to press him on preserving the peace treaty with Israel and enacting economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Cairo just two weeks after Morsi’s election to press the military for a “full transition” to civilian rule.
Wittes said the administration missed a number of opportunities to get tough on Morsi, notably following his constitutional declaration in November that barred the country’s courts from challenging his decisions. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry overruled U.S. lawmakers in offering the country $250 million in economic aid in March and another $1.3 billion in military aid two months later.
“It was important for the U.S. to make clear that it would accept the results of free and fair elections,” Wittes said. “That’s what Washington thought it was doing, but the way it was perceived was as a swift embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood as Washington’s new dance partner.”
The administration had grown more critical of Morsi over the past six months, she said, increasingly pressing the Muslim Brotherhood to respect Egyptians’ right to dissent against government policies.
But the timing of Ambassador Anne Patterson’s June 18 remarks denouncing “street action” as a way to get rid of Morsi cemented for many the impression that the White House was backing the Muslim Brotherhood against its growing list of foes.
“Some say that street action will produce better results than elections,” Patterson said during a speech at Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies during which she also called for the government to respect the rights of all Egyptians. “To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical.”
Wittes said the administration now has little choice but to acknowledge that the army’s decision to depose Morsi was indeed a military coup and close the military aid spigot, especially after the U.S.-supported African Union suspended Egypt for just that reason.
The practical effects could be limited, she added, since Egypt just got its $1.3 billion in yearly aid and the goal of legal aid restrictions is to incentivize military regimes to quickly transition back to civilian rule.