For those seeking an explanation for the puzzling turn that American foreign policy has taken during Barack Obama’s second term, the New York Times has one today. In a front-page feature in their Sunday edition, the Times’s Mark Landler provides National Security Advisor Susan Rice with the kind of puff piece the paper’s readers have come to expect when such analyses of administration policy are provided. Rice’s “blueprint” for a change from the president’s more ambitious goals of his first term was, we are told, formed at a series of Saturday morning bull sessions where those involved decided that they wanted to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him.” So they chucked the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush that Obama had tentatively embraced at the time of the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests as well as any interest in Egypt. As the Times reported:
At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.
In theory, that might make sense. But given that the Iranians only use diplomacy to buy themselves more time to build their nuclear program; the Israeli-Palestinian talks are widely believed to be a fool’s errand (and were included in the agenda only because Secretary of State John Kerry had already committed the U.S. to another round of diplomacy with all of its risks and dangers regardless of what Rice or anyone else wanted to do); and the administration has already punted on Syria, this is not a promising agenda. Indeed, it looks to be even more of a disaster than the more wide-ranging to-do-list of the president’s first term that no one is claiming was exactly a great success.
But unfortunately for Rice and her boss, their “modest strategy”—as the headline of the Times feature puts it—just got a little shakier today. Earlier this month, I was one of many administration critics who warned that the president’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could open the door for Russia to step back into the alliance that Anwar Sadat trashed back in the 1970s as he strove to make peace with Israel. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to do that. At the same time that Rice was using the Times to send a message to Egypt that it is no longer a U.S. priority, reports are circulating that the Russian autocrat is planning a visit to Cairo where he will attempt to revive the military alliance that existed between Russia and Egypt. If he succeeds in getting the Russian fleet back into Egypt’s Mediterranean ports, he should send a thank you note to Rice and the president. But, of course, he already owes them one for the administration’s retreat on Syria.
This is a potential disaster for U.S. foreign policy.
The Egyptian military seems to have succeeded in not only ousting the Muslim Brotherhood government that threatened to turn the most populous Arab nation into an Islamist regime but in keeping the group from organizing a rebellion. Though the process by which they have done so is not easy to defend, they at least understood something the president and Rice seem not to have learned: that the struggle with the Brotherhood is a zero-sum game. By taking out the Brotherhood, clamping down on terror in the Sinai, and squeezing Hamas in Gaza, the military has made the region safer. But they’ve gotten no thanks for this from Washington. Not only has Obama distanced the U.S. from Cairo and cut aid, Rice has now announced, via the front page of the Sunday New York Times, that what happens in Egypt isn’t all that important anyway.
While the Egyptian military will be loath to swap up-to-date U.S. hardware for Russian knockoffs, who can blame them for shopping around for new friends after the snubs they’ve received from President Obama?
Though his staff wants to save the president from being swamped by events in the Middle East, by putting all their chips on the slim hopes of an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran and the virtually non-existent chances of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, they have only set him up for more failure. Worse than that, by granting Putin a victory in Syria—where Russian and Iranian ally Bashar Assad looks more secure than ever thanks to Obama’s backing away from striking at his chemical-weapons stockpile—and setting him up to win back Egypt, President Obama has made the Middle East much less stable for U.S. allies like Israel and Arab nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. That’s a formula for exactly the kind of blow-up Rice and her buddies had hoped to spare the president.