Growing instability from Syria to Egypt highlights the Obama administration’s failure to develop a consistent strategy for promoting democracy in the wake of popular uprisings in the region, analysts say.
During the Arab Spring last year, President Obama pledged full U.S. support to those who risked their lives to reform dictatorial regimes across the Middle East. Now, the administration has closed the U.S. Embassy in Syria as government forces slaughter civilians and is grappling with the Egyptian military’s plan to hold trials for Americans accused of meddling in its internal affairs.
“On multiple fronts, the administration is playing catch-up to these situations,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “One lesson is the need for clarity. In Egypt, we were not clear enough with the military men early on. We have overplayed the principle that the new leaders were elected democratically and therefore we have to respect their wishes.”
Egypt on Sunday referred 19 Americans, all employees of pro-democracy nonprofit groups, for criminal trial on charges that they fomented unrest. One of them is the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich compared the situation to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president.
“You now have the Obama hostage crisis to resemble the Carter hostage crisis,” Mr. Gingrich said.
The Americans are not being held in prison, but are not allowed to leave the country. Mr. LaHood said he speaks to his son every day.
“The administration has no policy,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Hoping is not a foreign policy.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration has expressed “grave concern about the crackdown” in Egypt.
“We are discussing our concern with all levels of the Egyptian government,” Mr. Carney said. “We have made clear that the consequences of this action could potentially affect our relationship and could potentially affect the aid that we provide.”
The U.S. each year gives $1.3 billion in military aid that stems from Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and American taxpayers provide about $250 million in annual economic aid.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, demanded that Egypt return all assets seized in the raids of the nonprofit groups, stop the prosecutions and allow the organizations to reopen their offices.
“It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayer dollars, taxpayer-funded equipment, and, most importantly, U.S. citizens are the target of a politically motivated investigation,” she said. “The Egyptian government’s actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt.”
James Carafano, an analyst in national security at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said the situation in Egypt reflects a pattern in the Middle East that is worrisome for U.S. interests.
“The most organized groups in Egypt are the Islamist groups, and they are antithetical to U.S. interests,” Mr. Carafano said. “It’s not surprising they’ve come to the fore. What we’ve seen across the Arab Spring is the likelihood of governments coming to power that are, at best, no better for U.S. interests.”
Mr. Gingrich echoed those remarks.
“The largest voting bloc in the new Egyptian government is the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “The second-largest group [the fundamentalist Salafi al-Nour Party] is more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood. So the Muslim Brotherhood are now the moderates. This is like the 1930s, and this is a mindless capitulation to forces that are contrary to our entire civilization.”
On Syria, the Obama administration has repeatedly called on President Bashar Assad to step down and has imposed a series of financial and economic sanctions against its top leaders. Mr. Obama has rejected military intervention in the 11-month-old rebellion, in which the United Nations says more than 5,400 civilians have been killed.
Russia and China last weekend blocked a U.N. Security Council effort to embrace an Arab League solution to the crisis in Syria.
Mr. Carney said the actions by Russia and China gave “solace” to a regime that won’t last.
“We are going to work with … international allies and partners, and with other friends of Syria — friends of the Syrian people — to continue to pressure the Assad regime so that it ceases this reprehensible behavior,” Mr. Carney said.
Ms. Pletka said the administration is ineffectually following events in Syria rather than trying to manage them with a coherent policy.
“They will not get involved with Syria,” she said, “because they are without principle, they are without policy.”