WASHINGTON -- From Egypt to Syria to Iraq and beyond, the Obama administration is determined to show it will only go so far to help save nations in chaos from themselves.
President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he favors a foreign policy of consultation and negotiation, but not intervention, in the persistent and mostly violent upheavals across the Mideast. And he appears determined not to deviate this week even to help reverse turbulence in Egypt, one of the United States’ most important Arab allies.
The administration is "very concerned about what we’re seeing on the ground, and we do realize, of course, that is an extremely tense and fast-moving situation in Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. "We think that all sides need to engage with each other and need to listen to the voices of the Egyptian people, and what they are calling for, and peacefully protesting about. And that’s a message we’ve conveyed at all levels to all sides."
Hundreds of thousands of protesters deluged Tahrir Square in Cairo, waving flags in a sort of a celebratory vigil as the powerful Egyptian military appeared poised to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi over his hard-line Islamist policies. Though the U.S. has offered strong suggestions to ease the tensions -- tied to billions of dollars in U.S. aid -- the Obama administration is stopping short of demanding that Morsi take specific steps, even though the Egyptian president had ample opportunities to promise solutions over the last two days.
Officials in Washington and Cairo said Wednesday there are no plans for U.S. military intervention in Egypt, although a unit of about 500 Marines remain on standby in the nearby Red Sea, where it has been stationed for some time.
The hands-off approach has earned the U.S. scorn from many Egyptians, camped out at the site of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution two years ago, who believe the American Embassy in Cairo is siding with Morsi. One protester, an ultraconservative member of the Salafist movement who would only identify himself as Amr, accused the U.S. of "only looking after their interests."
"They will only bet on the winning horse," he said late Tuesday in Tahrir, which means "liberation" in Arabic.
Psaki steered clear of directly criticizing Morsi on Wednesday but noted he could have answered the Egyptian public’s concerns in comments Tuesday and Wednesday, "and he did not take the opportunity to do that."
It should come as little surprise that Obama, who is grappling with a recovering economy, a war-weary public at home and diminished U.S. status as a global superpower abroad, would not wade into foreign conflicts. Obama campaigned by promising to end the war in Iraq, which he did in 2011; he now plans to withdraw most, if not all, U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year and inevitably will face pitched pleas from Kabul to reconsider as the deadline nears.
U.S. polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone," Obama wrote in his 2010 National Security Strategy. "Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power."
Despite pressure from some in Congress and allies abroad, the Obama administration refused until last month to give weapons to Syrian rebels who have been battling for more than two years to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. The arms -- a tepid show of guns, ammunition and shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades -- only came after U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.
Other Sunni-dominated Mideast nations, most notably Qatar, have provided heavier weapons to help the rebels beat back Iranian forces and aid that is flowing to Assad’s regime. An estimated 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Rebel commanders have been underwhelmed by the U.S. support, saying they need enough firepower to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to stop his tanks and heavy artillery. The Free Syrian Army, which is made up of some opposition forces, also wants allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent Assad’s superior air power from crushing the rebels or killing civilians.
The White House is, at best, highly reluctant to create such a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.
Even American officials say the help to Syria is not enough.
The light weapons are "clearly not only insufficient, it’s insulting," said Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican proponent of taking a bigger military role in Syria.
McCain and several other hawkish Republicans also have criticized Obama for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, where violence has dramatically escalated since their departure 18 months ago.
The Obama administration agreed to the longstanding 2011 withdrawal deadline, which was set by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, after negotiations fell through to keep some U.S. forces in Iraq. But American officials involved in the negotiations have blamed the White House for making only a weak effort to keep troops in the country and being all too happy when the Shiite-led government in Baghdad refused to let them stay.
Despite nearly nine years of war that aimed to stabilize Iraq -- during which nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and about $800 billion in taxpayer money was spent -- near-daily bombings and other attacks continue. And the White House rarely, if ever, discusses Iraq except to pat itself on the back for leaving.
In June alone, 761 Iraqis were killed and nearly 1,800 wounded in terror-related violence, the U.N. envoy in Baghdad said in a statement this week. Comparatively, that’s about twice as many killed in the deadliest month of 2011 before the American troops left, according to data from the British-based Iraq Body Count.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state from late 2009 until early this year, said the White House cannot afford to take its eye off the Mideast even as Obama tries to refocus on Asia and Africa. Even so, the administration’s strategy in the Mideast may be a not-so-subtle reminder that the U.S. is no longer willing -- or able -- to play either world policeman or peacekeeper.
"One of the things that many Americans questioned in the wake of the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is whether the United States in fact can be successful in stabilizing unstable parts of the world," Wittes, now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute think tank, said Tuesday.
"The Obama administration has set itself the task not only of closing the chapter on a decade defined by two wars and reorienting not only America and its expectations for its role in the world, but reorienting other countries’ expectations for the role America will play," she said.