WASHINGTON – Five years after pledging to remake the U.S. relationship with the broader Middle East and improve America’s image in the Muslim world, the Obama administration’s regional strategy appears to have come unhinged.
President Barack Obama has been confronted by fast-moving and ominous developments from Afghanistan to Tunisia, amid a bitter public power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has adjusted his first term’s grand plan to restore Washington’s standing and influence.
Now, it’s a smaller vision that seems to rely on ad hoc responses aimed at merely keeping the United States relevant in an increasingly volatile and hostile atmosphere.
His administration has been forced to deal with three years of civil war in Syria. A Western-backed opposition is struggling to topple an autocratic government and repel Islamic fighters who also are destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, where al-Qaida has resurged less than three years after Obama withdrew U.S. forces.
The U.S. is struggling to identify a coherent position in Egypt after the military ouster of the country’s first democratically elected president. The administration tried its best to avoid calling the power transfer a coup.
It is losing patience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who refuses to sign a security agreement with the U.S. The pact would let the U.S. leave some troops in the country to help train and assist Karzai’s army in keeping the Taliban at bay after America’s longest conflict ends Dec. 31.
Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal against resistance from both sides, in a quest some label quixotic.
Yet apart from Kerry’s efforts, Obama’s national security team seems to have settled on a largely hands-off, do-no-harm approach to developments in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt.
This has attracted criticism and concern, not least from traditional U.S. allies such as the Saudis, who like the Israelis and many members of Congress are wary, if not outright opposed to the administration’s engagement with Iran over its nuclear program.
Administration officials, of course, are quick to deny suggestions of indecision, weakness or, worse, political expedience.
They say the president is adopting carefully crafted, pragmatic initiatives for each hot spot, each designed to reduce what current officials believe was President George W. Bush’s reliance on military might and pressure tactics.
While the crises engulfing the Middle East cannot be blamed on Obama, there are growing fears that the U.S.’s Middle East policy has become rudderless and reactive, and may be contributing to worsening conditions and a rise of Islamic extremism, notably in Syria and Iraq.
The administration has been accused of neglecting those countries while focusing on an elusive Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
“The deterioration in this region is just astounding,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at a news conference in Jerusalem on Jan. 3 as Kerry was making his 10th peacemaking trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“Israel is surrounded by regimes falling apart on all sides. The Iranians are marching toward a nuclear capability. Syria is becoming a cancer infecting the whole region. And I yearn for peace. But more than anything else, I yearn for leadership – leadership for my country to be accounted for at a time when the world needs American leadership.”
Criticism from Republicans such as Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who echoed his colleague’s sentiments at the Jerusalem news conference, is to be expected. But it is coming from other quarters as well.
Senior members of the Saudi royal family have disparaged the United States on Syria and voiced their skepticism of the rapprochement with Iran.
Saudi frustration has become so intense that the kingdom turned down a seat on the U.N. Security Council to protest inaction on Syria, and last week announced a $3 billion gift to the Lebanese army to help it battle extremists.
While publicly welcoming Kerry’s peace efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned against his diplomacy with Iran and tried to scuttle it.
Some, including current and former U.S. officials, worry that even the perception of disengagement is problematic and counterproductive. Their litany of complaints stretches from North Africa to Central Asia, and includes:
• a failure to carry through on threats to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for its use of chemical weapons
• not taking a tougher stand on the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi
• not insisting on keeping a residual force in Iraq or offering greater support to the Iraqi government earlier
• an inability to seal the deal to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014
• seeking out a partnership with Iran while de-emphasizing engagement with nascent democracies in Tunisia and Libya
The administration has adopted an “uncertain tone” in Iraq that has left a negative impression that is seen “so often in this region,” James Jeffrey, an ex-State Department official and ambassador to Baghdad, wrote in an essay last week.
The administration is “seemingly signaling to everyone that ‘Job One’ is not getting us in any sort of military engagement – not just some new Vietnam, but any new cruise missile raid, or small continuing military presence in Afghanistan, or perhaps a few dozen uniformed U.S. (counterterrorism) experts to advise Iraqis on how to take down al-Qaida in Fallujah,” Jeffrey said. “The result has been an extraordinary collapse of our credibility in the region, despite many commendable administration actions.”
The administration adamantly rejects such complaints.
“The policy of the administration is that diplomacy should be the first option,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday. She noted that Obama and Kerry have restarted the Middle East peace talks, opened direct talks with Iran and moved to rid Syria of chemical weapons without military strikes.