WASHINGTON — The Obama administration maintained a measured approach to the nationwide turbulence in Egypt on Wednesday, even as the military overthrew the Islamist government.
President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he favours a foreign policy of consultation and negotiation, but not intervention, in the persistent and mostly violent upheavals across the Mideast.
In a firmly worded statement, Obama called on the Egyptian military to relinquish power to a democratically elected civilian government and to resist arresting ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters.
He also said the U.S. will review whether Egypt is still eligible for $1.5 billion that Washington gives in economic and military aid annually. Calling himself “deeply concerned” about the turmoil, Obama nonetheless maintained “that, ultimately the future of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people.”
“The longstanding partnership between the United States and Egypt is based on shared interests and values, and we will continue to work with the Egyptian people to ensure that Egypt’s transition to democracy succeeds,” Obama said.
It was a muted response compared to the uproar that has for days gripped Egyptians, many of whom in turn have openly jeered the U.S. for appearing too close to Morsi, despite his hard-line Islamist policies.
The White House has gamely struggled since Morsi’s election more than a year ago to embrace his presidency, despite fears that his Muslim Brotherhood power base would revert to its anti-American and anti-Israel roots instead of taking a more moderate stance towards peace.
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.
In Egypt, American officials had given Morsi strong suggestions — tied to billions of dollars in aid — to ease tensions but went unheeded.
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 White House also has long resisted deploying troops to Syria. Additionally, and despite criticism from some in Congress and allies abroad, Obama 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.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state from late 2009 until early this year, said 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.
But, in the case of Egypt, Wittes said the White House may no longer have enough sway to advise a political transition, even if it wanted to do so.
The U.S. should be urging the new Egyptian government to stabilize its roiled economy quickly and prevent the country from plunging even deeper into political instability, Wittes said, adding, “There’s a role for the United States to be weighing in.”
However, “for better or worse, we’re in a position now where the United States has to some extent alienated the political opposition, and by not standing with Morsi, I suppose they’ve also alienated the Muslim Brotherhood,” Wittes said Wednesday. “So I don’t think the U.S. finds itself with a lot of ready audiences.”