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updated: 7/3/2013 9:31 AM

Obama leery of intervention in Mideast

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  • Anti-government protesters gathered in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in 2011 watch a screen showing U.S. President Barack Obama live on a TV broadcast from Washington, speaking about the situation in Egypt.

    Anti-government protesters gathered in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in 2011 watch a screen showing U.S. President Barack Obama live on a TV broadcast from Washington, speaking about the situation in Egypt.
    Associated Press file photo

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- From Egypt to Syria to Iraq and beyond, the Obama administration is determined to show it will only go so far to help save nations in chaos from themselves.

President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he favors a foreign policy of consultation and negotiation, but not intervention, in the persistent and mostly violent upheavals across the Mideast. And he appears determined not to deviate this week even to help reverse turbulence in Egypt, one of the United States' most important Arab allies.

U.S. officials say the Obama administration delivered pointed warnings Tuesday to three main players in the latest crisis to grip Egypt as hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand President Mohammed Morsi's ouster over his hard-line Islamist policies. The powerful Egyptian military appeared poised to overthrow him.

The administration stopped short of demanding that Morsi take specific steps, the officials said, and instead offered strong suggestions that are backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid to ease the tensions.

The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the delicate diplomacy that is aimed at soothing the unrest and protecting Egypt's status as a bulwark of Mideast stability. Yet the warnings were unlikely to placate the protesters gathered at the site of Egypt's Arab Spring revolution two years ago, many of whom have accused the U.S. of siding with Morsi.

"The United States is only looking after their interests. They will only bet on the winning horse, and the winning horse is always chosen by the people," an ultraconservative member of the Salafist movement who would only identify himself as Amr, 31, said Tuesday night at Tahrir Square. "At the end of the day it is the people who say that who stays and who goes."

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.

"The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone," Obama wrote in his 2010 National Security Strategy. "Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power."

Despite pressure from some in Congress and allies abroad, the Obama administration 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. The arms -- a tepid show of guns, ammunition and shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades -- only came after U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.

Other Sunni-dominated Mideast nations, most notably Qatar, have provided heavier weapons to help the rebels beat back Iranian forces and aid that is flowing to Assad's regime. An estimated 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Rebel commanders have been underwhelmed by the U.S. support, saying they need enough firepower to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to stop his tanks and heavy artillery. The Free Syrian Army, which is made up of some opposition forces, also wants allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent Assad's superior air power from crushing the rebels or killing civilians.

The White House is, at best, highly reluctant to create such a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.

Even American officials say the help to Syria is not enough.

The light weapons are "clearly not only insufficient, it's insulting," said Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican proponent of taking a bigger military role in Syria.

McCain and several other hawkish Republicans also have criticized Obama for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, where violence has dramatically escalated since their departure 18 months ago.

The Obama administration agreed to the long-standing 2011 withdrawal deadline, which was set by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, after negotiations fell through to keep some U.S. forces in Iraq. But American officials involved in the negotiations have blamed the White House for making only a weak effort to keep troops in the country and being all too happy when the Shiite-led government in Baghdad refused to let them stay.

Despite nearly nine years of war that aimed to stabilize Iraq -- during which nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and about $800 billion in taxpayer money was spent -- near-daily bombings and other attacks continue. And the White House rarely, if ever, discusses Iraq except to pat itself on the back for leaving.

In June alone, 761 Iraqis were killed and nearly 1,800 wounded in terror-related violence, the U.N. envoy in Baghdad said in a statement this week. Comparatively, that's about twice as many killed in the deadliest month of 2011 before the American troops left, according to data from the British-based Iraq Body Count.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state from late 2009 until early this year, said the White House cannot afford to take its eye off the Mideast even as Obama tries to refocus on Asia and Africa. Even so, 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.

"One of the things that many Americans questioned in the wake of the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is whether the United States in fact can be successful in stabilizing unstable parts of the world," Wittes, now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute think tank, said Tuesday.

"The Obama administration has set itself the task not only of closing the chapter on a decade defined by two wars and reorienting not only America and its expectations for its role in the world, but reorienting other countries' expectations for the role America will play," she said.

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