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 is refusing to sign a security agreement with the U.S. The pact would allow the U.S. to 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 dismissed by some as 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 and diplomatic initiatives for each hot spot — initiatives 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 Mideast 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., told reporters at a news conference in Jerusalem just three days into the New Year 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.”
An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is “an important goal and aspiration and would be great for the world,” he said, criticizing the administration in the same city where Kerry was on his 10th peacemaking trip.
“But I’ll be honest with you, as Syria falls into chaos with 130,000 dead, and the king of Jordan and Lebanon deal with the effects of a raging war in Syria, as Iraq begins to fall apart, as the Iranians enrich, we have to put this in the context of the world at large,” Graham said.
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 took the unprecedented step of turning 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 F. Jeffrey, an ex-senior State Department official and ambassador to Baghdad, wrote in an essay this past 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.”
Jeffrey makes the case that the administration seems to be trying to insulate itself from criticism and in doing so is actually sending the wrong message.
“What goes missing with such a focus is empathy for the impact our words have on foreigners — our allies, partners, and foes around the world,” he wrote. “They are also an audience, and the former two keep ‘voting with their feet,’ from turning down Security Council Seats to any given Tel Aviv news conference. Until this all changes, chaos will continue to threaten us, in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
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.
Just this weekend, she pointed out, Kerry will be meeting with Syrian opposition supporters and Arab League officials in Paris to discuss Syria and the peace process.
“To argue that we are not actively engaged in diplomatic efforts around the world is completely inaccurate and is baseless,” Psaki said.
“The issue with some of these (complaints) is it seems to equate engagement with military action, and engagement should not be measured by military action. Diplomacy is our first priority. … It’s never in our interests to have troops in the middle of every single conflict in the Middle East or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East.”
Observers such as Jeffrey suggest that reasoning is too narrow.
The administration “conflates any military action with Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as if it’s all a slippery slope — and it isn’t,” he said. “They haven’t sorted out the difference between total war and using military forces intelligently — from the air, from ships, using special forces, using aid, giving weapons, helping people with advice. That’s what we need to do. And there is no easy answer.”