The Middle East pro-democracy movement hailed over the past two years as the Arab Spring was transformed Wednesday when the military junta now controlling Egypt opened a bloody assault on protesters — a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown that seemed to expose the limits of American diplomatic power to pursue lofty goals once envisioned for the region.
In what might be read as a sign that his administration saw few levers it could pull to alter the course of the day’s events, President Obama decided not to break from his August vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to speak publicly about the violence, despite the global outrage over the deaths of more than 200 Egyptians.
Instead, U.S. officials focused Wednesday on keeping the violence from spreading across what many Western observers have come to see as an increasingly volatile tinderbox of a region.
Across Washington’s foreign policy community, a Monday-morning quarterback debate quickly emerged over the “what ifs” and the “too lates” of an American policy that has struggled badly in the post-9/11 era to find its footing in the Middle East.
With details still uncertain about the scale and scope of Wednesday’s carnage, some of the consequences for Egypt’s military and U.S. influence in the region remain to be sorted out.
But a few implications appear clear. U.S. hopes that Egypt’s military could become an influential player in pressing Hamas toward peace in the Israeli-Palestinian talks seem to have evaporated. And the decision to continue U.S. aid to the military after its overthrow of the nation’s first democratically elected leader — regardless of his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood — also likely will be re-evaluated.
Analysts, meanwhile, were split on the extent to which the Obama administration may have blown repeated opportunities during the past two years to steer Egypt’s deeply divided population away from the total security meltdown by using U.S. military and humanitarian aid to influence those battling for power in Cairo.
Some argue that Washington could have put teeth behind its pleas for calm by cutting from the roughly $1.5 billion in annual aid. Others say such a move would have had little impact — even during the tension-filled weeks after last month’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
“Revolutions are not something the U.S. can control. We can influence them, but we need to be very careful about what we do,” said Anthony Cordesman, the senior Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
U.S. law requires a halt of American aid to militaries that have taken over their national governments.
“This whole idea of declaring a coup and cutting of arms is kind of like the 8-year-old who doesn’t like the game so he takes his ball and goes home,” he said. “It doesn’t really help.”
“Any practical administration would have to deal with the reality that U.S. influence is limited,” he said. “The events are unstable and constantly changing and you cannot basically threaten whoever is in power at any time in visible ways and achieve results.”