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Middle East crises catch the U.S. flat-footed
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Middle East crises catch the U.S. flat-footed

The Obama administration’s Middle East policies (and there are more than one) are difficult to define. If there are unifying themes, they seem to be isolationism and avoidance of use of force and projection of power.

The major exception to this is the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, on which Secretary of State John Kerry spent an inordinate amount of time and effort while events were roiling elsewhere in the Middle East. Against the backdrop of last week’s violence in Egypt and Syria, and while rockets were launched from Lebanon into Israel by Al Qaida-linked Islamists, the third round of talks concluded under blackout conditions.

Trying to discern the administration’s Mideast foreign policies is like probability theory’s “random walk,” where you try to forecast the position of a drunk after a specified number of steps. The only consistency seems to be that Israel must continue to make concessions to the Palestinians to induce them to come to the negotiating table, including the release of murders and terrorists, denominated “heroes” and “freedom fighters” by the Palestinian Authority (the State Department declined to label these released prisoners as “terrorists”).

Meanwhile, in Egypt the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi after huge demonstrations against his pro-Muslim Brotherhood policies. The ouster was followed by demonstrations by both military and Morsi/Brotherhood supporters, which turned deadly. The policy questions here are which side is the United States on and whether Morsi’s ouster is a “coup” — a designation that would trigger the suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt.

The situation has settled into relative calm. The Egyptian military, headed by Abdel el-Sisi, is in control and considering banning the Brotherhood, a number of Brotherhood leaders are under arrest, and a rampage by Brotherhood supporters against Coptic Christians and their churches has been halted.

While the administration is ducking taking a position on Egypt, others were not as hesitant. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates gave $12 billion in aid to Egypt after Morsi’s arrest, dwarfing the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid that would have been suspended if the administration declared Morsi’s ouster a coup. This limits American influence over the military.

Further limiting U.S. influence is a perception among some Egyptian opponents of the Brotherhood that the administration supports the Islamist party. Holders of this view point to the administration’s urging of quick elections for the Egyptian legislature and president, and its push for referendum on a new constitution before the Brotherhood’s political rivals could match its organization. The Brotherhood’s rivals also took a dim view of the United States ambassador’s criticism of Egypt’s military for deposing Morsi; the State Department’s call for Morsi’s release; the administration’s invitation to the Brotherhood when former President Hosni Mubarak left office; and Brotherhood-White House meetings in 2011 and 2012.

There may be little that the administration can do to influence events in Egypt. However, the consensus among pundits is that it should hold its nose, back the military, and try to convince it to return Egypt to civilian rule as soon as practicable.

While there is a current lull in Egypt, the civil war in Syria has escalated. Once again chemical weapons have been used against civilians. At one time there was a supposed clear policy regarding Syria. The United States would not intervene in the civil war; however, President Obama drew a “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons. Last August, he declared moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus.” When, in April of this year, there was evidence that the Assad government used chemical weapons, the administration backpedaled and blurred the line.

A UN inspection team in Syria to investigate the first use of chemical weapons was initially denied access to the second site, but the Assad regime relented. The United States was too late to be credible. On Monday, the inspectors came under sniper fire. Britain warned that evidence of a chemical attack may have already been destroyed. U.S. and British naval vessels are heading toward Syria and there are reports that a joint operation against Syria is only days away.

Syria and its allies are also delivering warnings. Syria has warned the United States that any military action would set the Middle East ablaze. Russia warned that any unilateral military action in Syria would undermine efforts for peace and have a devastating impact on the security situation in the Middle East.

As with Egypt, the administration’s options in Syria may be limited, but the current situation was influenced by prior action or inaction. In another example of leading from behind, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Aug. 26 that if the United States was to take action, “it will be concert with the international community and within the framework of legal justification.”

Defense and intelligence groups supposedly do war gaming to test various scenarios and contingency plans. In both Egypt and Syria, the administration seems to be caught flatfooted. It seems that the only discernible policy is procrastination.

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