President Obama's foreign policy image has taken a hit from violence in Egypt that has left more than 600 people dead.
The Egyptian military's crackdown — which came after the administration declined to call its toppling of President Mohammed Morsi a coup — has made Obama look powerless on the international stage, and raised criticism of his Middle East policy. The impression of aloofness was reinforced by images of the president golfing in Martha's Vineyard throughout the week's violence.
“We have lost nearly all credibility — and therefore leverage — in Egypt,” the chairwoman of the House Middle East panel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said Friday. “The United States must take a firm stance and not dither in order to encourage both sides to get back on track toward democracy.”
Even some Democrats are calling for a change in course beyond Obama's announcement Thursday that he's canceling next month's joint military exercises in Cairo. They say the administration should immediately freeze U.S. aid to the country and forcefully demand a return to democracy.
“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: Aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate panel that controls spending for the State Department and foreign operations.
In a joint statement Friday, hawkish Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also urged the president to immediately call Morsi's July 3 ouster a military coup and suspend $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid.
“The interim civilian government and security forces – backed up, unfortunately, by the military – are taking Egypt down a dark path, one that the United States cannot and should not travel with them,” they said. “We cannot be complicit in the mass slaughter of civilians.”
And the Times' editorial board opined that it was "past time" for Obama to reverse decades of unquestioning support for Egypt's military.
Some experts think the damage is already done.
“People on different sides – whether it's Arab governments or opposition groups – don't take the U.S. seriously,” said Shadi Hamid, the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center who has lived in the region for the past four years and was in Egypt this week. “There is a widespread perception that Obama is a weak, feckless leader. That's not just Republican talking points – it's what people here in the region actually think and say on a regular basis.”
Hamid said there's an “emerging consensus that Obama has gotten the Middle East wrong” because he's convinced the United States only has limited power to shape events in the region. As a result, Hamid told The Hill, Obama missed a chance to embrace the Arab Spring by strongly opposing Bahrain's crackdown on protesters, intervening early on in Syria's uprising against Bashar Assad and labeling Morsi's ouster a coup.
“It sends a very dangerous message if the U.S. is not even willing to respect its own law on matters of national security,” Hamid said. “The fact that we can't call things what they are makes us a laughing-stock in the region. That's why people don't care about what Obama says and his rhetoric.”
The White House declined to comment. The administration has argued that ending aid to Egypt would weaken U.S. influence while warning the Egyptian military that U.S. policy would be conditioned on events going forward.
Obama has sought to shift the focus back on Egyptians.
“America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people,” he said during a brief break from his vacation on Thursday. “We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong.”
Hamid said the repercussions of this week's violence will haunt the United States for years to come.
While U.S. leaders and the public may wish to extricate the country from the Middle East, he predicted, the administration's weak response to the brutal crackdown against democratically elected Islamists will only fuel more terrorism.
“When you keep on waiting to take action and you keep on pushing things forward until some later date, you really run the risk that at the end of the day things are so much worse,” Hamid said. “Sometimes the time to act is very early on in conflicts.”
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