Obama’s Foreign-Policy Fiasco
This administration has helped make us irrelevant in the Middle East.

Protesting U.S. foreign policy in Egypt.


Daniel Pipes

It’s a privilege to be an American who works on foreign policy, as I have done since the late 1970s, participating in a small way in the grand project of finding my country’s place in the world. But now, under Barack Obama, decisions made in Washington have dramatically shrunk in importance. It’s unsettling and dismaying. And no longer a privilege.

Whether during the structured Cold War or the chaotic two decades that followed, America’s economic size, technological edge, military prowess, and basic decency meant that, even in its inactivity, in world developments the U.S. government counted as much as or more than any other state. Sniffles in Washington translated into influenza elsewhere.

Weak and largely indifferent presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton mattered in spite of themselves, for example in the Iranian revolution of 1978–79 or the Arab–Israeli conflict in the 1990s. Strong and active presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had greater impact yet, speeding up the Soviet collapse or invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

But now, with Barack Obama, the United States has slid into shocking irrelevance in the Middle East, the world’s most turbulent region. Inconstancy, incompetence, and inaction have rendered the Obama administration impotent. In the foreign-policy arena, Obama acts as though he would rather be the prime minister of Belgium, a small country that usually copies the decisions of its larger neighbors when casting votes at the United Nations or preening morally about distant troubles. Belgians naturally “lead from behind,” to use the Obama White House’s famed phrase.

Qatar (with a national population of 225,000) has an arguably greater impact on current events than the 1,400-times-larger United States (population: 314 million). Note how Obama these days takes a back seat to the emirs of Doha: They take the lead supplying arms to the Libyan rebels; he follows. They actively help the rebels in Syria; he dithers. They provide billions to the new leadership in Egypt; he stumbles over himself. They unreservedly back Hamas in Gaza; he pursues delusions of an Israeli–Palestinian “peace process.” Toward this end, the U.S. secretary of state made six trips in four months to Israel and the Palestinian territories in pursuit of a diplomatic initiative that almost no one believes will end the Arab–Israeli conflict.

Meanwhile, the U.S. secretary of defense called Egyptian leader Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi 17 times in conversations lasting 60 to 90 minutes, yet failed in his pleas that Sisi desist from using force against the Muslim Brotherhood. More striking yet, Sisi apparently refused to take a phone call from Obama. The $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt suddenly looks paltry in comparison with the $12 billion from three Persian Gulf countries, which promise to make up for any Western cuts in aid. Both sides in Egypt’s deep political divide accuse Obama of favoring the other and execrate his name. As dozens of Coptic churches burned, he played six rounds of golf. Ironically, Egypt is where, four long years ago, Obama delivered a major speech repudiating with seeming triumph George W. Bush’s policies.

Obama’s ambitions lie elsewhere — in augmenting the role of government within the United States, as epitomized by Obamacare. Accordingly, he treats foreign policy as an afterthought, an unwelcome burden, and something to dispatch before returning to juicier matters. He oversees withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan with little concern for what follows. His unique foreign-policy accomplishment, trumpeted ad nauseam, was the execution of Osama bin Laden.

So far, the cost to American interests for Obama’s ineptitude has not been high. But that could change quickly. Most worrisome, Iran could soon achieve nuclear breakout and start to throw its newfound weight around, if not deploy its brand-new weapons. The new regime in Egypt could revert to its earlier anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism; already, important elements in Egypt are calling for rejection of U.S. aid and termination of the peace treaty with Israel.

To an American who sees his country as a force for good, these developments are painful and scary. The world needs an active, thoughtful, and assertive United States. The historian Walter A. McDougall rightly states that “the creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years” and its civilization “perturbs the trajectories of all other civilizations just by existing.” Well, there isn’t so much perturbation these days. May the dismal present be brief in duration.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

Crackdown in Cairo
DAY OF RAGE: After last week's crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Cairo, supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi gathered in Ramses square in Cairo on Aug. 16 for a huge protest deemed the "Day of Rage."
Crowds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters gather in Ramses Square in Cairo.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters carry an injured colleague during clashes at Ramses Square.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters march towards Old Cairo with the coffin of a colleague killed during Wednesday's clashes.
A car burns near Ramses Square.
A skull flag flies during clashes near Ramses Square
"Day of Rage" protests were held in cities across Egypt. Pictured, Morsi loyalists raise up posters of the former president during a march in Alexandria.
MOSQUE CONFRONTATION: A group of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters took shelter inside Cairo's al-Fath mosque near Ramses Square.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters clash with police near Ramses square in Cairo on Aug. 16.
Civilians run for cover as Muslim Brotherhood supports exchange gunfire with government forces.
Muslim Brotherhood during clashes outside Al-Fath mosque.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters holed inside the al-Fath mosque negotiation with security forces from a behind a barricade.
Riot police move into the al-Fath mosque, ending the stand-off with Muslim Brotherhood members holed up inside.
Army soldiers inside the al-Fath mosque.
Army soldiers inside the al-Fath mosque.
Police guard the gate of the al-Fath mosque.
Supporters of the interim government talk with police outside the mosque.
Supporters of the interim government taunt members of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the al-Fath mosque.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters voluntarily leave the al-Fath escorted by security personnel.
A large crowd jeers and threatens Muslim Brotherhood members as they are escorted out of the al-Fath mosque by security forces.
An Egyptian man mourns over the bodies of relatives in the al-Fath mosque.
Wreckage and debris litter the area around the Al-Fath mosque after the confrontation.
VIOLENCE ENGULFS EGYPT: The stand-off between the Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood supporters that followed last month’s coup in Egypt erupted in violence on August 14, when government security forces moved in to eject supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi from encampments in Cairo.
The escalation of violence highlights concern about the stability of the largest nation in the Arab world, barely a month after the removal of its first democratically-elected president, and stoked fears of continuing unrest among supporters of the former regime.
Supporters of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party had protested the military takeover since Morsi’s ouster. They fought with homemade weapons as police and army units using bulldozers and armored vehicles moved in to camps set up near the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque.
Several protest camps were completely destroyed in the fighting, and other government buildings were heavily damaged. The Rabaa mosque itself (pictured) was also heavily damaged. The military later vowed to rebuild the historic site.
By Thursday, the official death toll was reported at more than 600, including 43 police officers, with more than 3,700 injured. On Thursday, the government authorized deadly force to protect personnel and property.
On Thursday, the interim military government announced a new month-long state of emergency. Earlier in the week, acting vice president Mohamed El Baradei has resigned his office because of the violence.
Riot police and army soldiers moved in force on August 14.
Fighting between government forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters quickly escalated in Rabaa Adawiya square.
A riot police armored vehicle navigates the smoking remains of the encampment.
Fires engulfed the camp and nearby buildings.
Bulldozers were used to take down the temporary camp structures.
A defiant Egyptian woman attempts to halt a bulldozer’s advance.
A protester comforts a wounded colleague.
Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were injured and killed in the assault.
Fighting continued even as the camp site went up in flames.
Defiant Muslim Brotherhood members stood their ground.
Protestors throw rocks from amid the ruins of the Rabba encampment.
Army soldiers move in finish clearing the camp.
Soldiers carried wounded protestors and arrested scores of others.
The fighting also spilled out on to nearby roadways.
Protesters topple a government vehicle over a highway overpass. The driver was pulled from the vehicle and stripped of his gear.
Protesters pushed over another government vehicle.
More armored vehicles stand by as the Rabba camp burns.
Egyptian security forces members hold copies of the Koran during the operation.
Some of the many protesters arrested during the siege.
THE AFTERMATH: Hundreds of protesters were killed in the fighting, and the death toll seems likely to rise. Pictured, a protester mourns over the bodies of some of those killed.
A woman reacts after identifying a dead family member at the Rabaa al-Adaweya Medical Center.
A father grieves outside a makeshift morgue after seeing the body of his son, who was killed in the fighting.
Emotions rise in a woman as she sees some of the victims of the day’s clashes.
Wounded protesters wait for medical attention in the Rabaa al-Adaweya Medical Center.
Smoke rises from a gas station badly damaged in nearby fighting.
Posters of Mohammed Morsi remain amid the ruins of one of the caps.
A Morsi supporter tries to put out a fire at an encampment near Cairo University.
A military police officer walks through the remains of the camp outside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque.
Egyptian army officers tour the smoldering ruins of the larger protest camp.
A banner of Mohammed Morsi hangs from a nearby government building damaged during the fighting.
A line of burnt vehicles near the Rabaa camp.
Surveying the extensive damage inside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque.
Updated: Mar. 01, 2014