The U.S. Role in the Middle East Takes a Hit

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President Barack Obama’s electoral promises of change in foreign policy have come under fire these last few weeks. The reaction from observers and commentators in the Middle East to the U.S. response to unrest in Tunisia and Egypt has not been kind.

Explaining the conundrum faced by U.S. policy makers, Tony Karon writes in The National (UAE), “For Washington, the past two weeks have been a nightmare. Even as Egyptians rose against him, Mr. Mubarak was hailed by U.S. officials as a bulwark of regional stability, whose removal could be troubling.…The prospect that a country’s foreign policy may be more responsive to the will of its own citizens than to the needs of a foreign power is a problem. That idea would outrage Americans if applied at home, and yet here was their political elite telling them that the possibility of Egyptians deciding their own foreign policy might be a reason to oppose the fight for freedom on Tahrir Square.”

From the pages of Khaleej Times, “Total confusion would be a polite way of describing official Washington’s reaction to the revolts and protests now flaring across the Arab world. Neither the U.S. government nor the mainstream media knows how to respond.  President Barack Obama has just suffered the second humiliation in a row from the Mideast.  First, he demanded Israel cease building illegal settlements on Arab land…. Now, after demanding Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak resign ‘now,’ the Egyptian strongman scorned the demand and grimly hugs on to power.”

The ambivalent U.S. response has also won low marks from one of the leading Egyptian opposition leaders, Mohammed ElBaradei. Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Dr. ElBaradei called the Obama administration’s response “behind the curve.”  He also called negotiations between the Mubarak regime and the protesters “opaque,” stating “Nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage.  The process is managed by the outgoing regime…. It’s managed by Vice President Suleiman, and … the military.”

Concerns with the mixed messages coming out of Washington were also expressed by Andrew Quinn, who in Kuwait Times describes Egyptian activists as “appalled, and grew further alarmed by comments by Frank Wisner, a former diplomat sent last week to deliver Obama’s personal message to Mubarak…. ‘The president must stay in office to steer those changes,’ Wisner told a Munich audience in comments that, while disavowed by Washington, nevertheless were taken as representing at least one option now under U.S. consideration.”

There are some who, far from finding the response wanting, saw, as Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz, “Barack Obama, the man of promises, flickered to life last week…. After two years of letting the Middle East down, after inexplicable foot-dragging in the region that threatens world peace the most, Obama appeared in all his glory. It was neither another useless military invasion nor meddling on behalf of another despot, but the right intervention at the right time for a right and just goal.”

That perception of the U.S. president’s response is a rare one in the pages of the media in the region. Contributors on the Middle East Online website argue, “Obama’s recent slow and ineffectual reaction to events in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt demonstrate the lie behind the fine sounding rhetoric of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ that he used in his election campaign and the fine sounding rhetoric of ‘democracy’ used in his Cairo speech. At this point in time they are meaningless words in relation to events in Egypt…. With a demonstration that was largely peaceful, that covered people from all facets of life in Egypt — save the military-political elite — Obama hesitated in support of real democracy in Egypt.”

Writing for YNet, Orly Azoulay opines, “U.S. Administration officials are treating the protests in Egypt as a constitutive event in the Mideast and comparing them to the revolution in Europe in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. However, Obama, loyal to his worldview that the U.S. should not build or ruin foreign regimes, presented the world with a hesitant response over the weekend: He did not support Mubarak, but also did not go all the way to the other end of the spectrum and call for general elections or the replacement of the Egyptian regime.”

For some, the U.S. response to the crises in the Middle East presages shifts in the international system. Ari Shavit argues in the pages of Haaretz, “Two huge processes are happening right before our eyes. One is the Arab liberation revolution…. The second process is the acceleration of the decline of the West…. The West has maintained a sort of international hegemony…. But Western countries’ poor handling of the Middle East proves they are no longer leaders. Right before our eyes the superpowers are turning into palaver powers…. When the United States and Europe bury Mubarak now, they are also burying the powers they once were. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the age of Western hegemony is fading away.”

A similar sentiment is found in the Turkish dailies, such as Today’s Zaman, where Gökhan Bacik concludes, “To explain the developments that started in Tunisia and continued in Egypt, in a nutshell we can say this: The Western-centered state system in the Middle East is being shaken and might even fall down…. But as long as America does not establish equal relationships with figures in the Middle East that come to power through democratic means and does not give up its old hegemonic habits (puppet regimes) it will not be able to succeed in the long run.”

What is going on in Egypt right now is very complex. Writing for Hürriyet Daily News in Turkey, Ariana Ferentinou suggests that the “Egyptian puzzle signals no easy outcome for Western powers…. [F]or the moment, protesters unite in the square against the common enemy, an aging autocrat and his plutocratic class: Muslims, Christians, atheists, youngsters, are together asking for less corruption, higher salaries and equal opportunities. Some 1.5 billion dollars goes to Egypt every year as aid from the U.S.: Will the new political model for Egypt that will emerge from the negotiations between the army and the Islamists guarantee the protection of U.S. interests in the region? It is certainly not going to be as easy as before.”

However, the U.S. administration cannot afford to hide behind the complexity of the situation. As Yitzhak Benhorin cautions on YNet, “The Arab world [is] closely monitoring any nuance uttered by America. Egypt is a strategic anchor of U.S. policy and serves as the basis for supporting the peace process with Israel. The toppling of Mubarak would be far from guaranteeing democracy, yet officials in Washington are concerned that they are late in understanding what’s happening, and that the masses will not forgive the US for failing to stand by them at the moment of truth.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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