CAIRO — An Egyptian friend asked me if Washington backs the Muslim Brotherhood or the military that threw the Islamist party from power here last month.
“Whose side is the United States on?” he wanted to know.
Frankly, I didn’t know how to answer him — and it turns out, neither do many U.S. diplomats and intelligence analysts.
Several senior U.S. intelligence officers have told me they don’t see a clear U.S. policy — an American vision — for this volatile, oil rich land of prophets, religious passions and ancient scriptures. American policy, they said, seems to be reinvented day by day, veering from the management of one crisis to the next. Washington’s inconsistencies have been undeniable.
The United States supported Egypt’s strongman president Hosni Mubarak for 30 years, until President Obama dumped him after 18 days of unrest in early 2011. That move sent a sign that Washington was with the students, activists and rebellious youths demanding change, and with the Islamic masses unchained after years of repression.
A few months later, President Obama ordered the U.S. military to back rebels in Libya. An “Obama Doctrine” seemed to be emerging, supporting change and turning against the nationalist, military-backed “big men” who have dominated the region for two generations.
But then, things changed. Bahrain, a close US ally and home to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, got a pass. The Gulf monarchy cracked down on its uprising while Washington stayed silent. Along came the mess in Syria. While Libyan revolutionaries were given air cover and NATO military advisers, Syrians rebels were left to die. A month ago I spent three days with Syrian rebel commander Selim Idris, traveling with him to the outskirts of what’s left of the once beautiful city of Aleppo. At times Idris was in tears of frustration with U.S. policy.
“Is Washington with us or against us?” he asked. He told me of countless meetings he has had with U.S. diplomats, often going over the same ground.
“They say they want to help us, but don’t trust us. They say they will help, but don’t deliver. They give us just enough support to help keep us alive and fighting, but not enough to win. Do they want us all to die? Is that the U.S. goal? If it is just tell me!” he said.
Idris said he wants to meet with President Obama to ask him directly what Washington has in mind for Syria. As far as I know, that meeting hasn’t been added to the president’s agenda.
Meanwhile Egypt, the biggest country in the Middle East and the region’s cultural capital, has seen a dizzying array of positions from Washington. After dropping Mubarak, Washington supported the Muslim Brotherhood after it won a series of elections in 2012. Washington then changed again, accepting a military coup against the Brotherhood this summer as a fait accompli. Now the U.S. is trying to please both sides, stressing that the military and the Brotherhood should negotiate to avoid more bloodshed.
There may not be much to negotiate about. The secular military and Islamist Brotherhood both want to rule this crowded narrow strip of green along the Nile. The gap between the two sides may be too wide to bridge.
It’s no wonder the outgoing U.S. Ambassador in Cairo, Ann Patterson, is the most unpopular envoy here in decades. The Egyptian military accuses her of carrying water for the Brotherhood, supporting a group the army considers to be a terrorist group. But the Brotherhood thinks the ambassador helped Washington orchestrate, or at least green light, the military’s coup. Every child is taught if you try to please everyone, you end up upsetting everyone.
So what is the current U.S. policy in the Middle East? Does Washington back democracy and popular uprisings? Yes in Libya. No in Syria. No in Bahrain. Sometimes in Egypt.
Does Washington stand with military-backed regimes that claim to ensure stability? No in Syria. Yes across the Persian Gulf. Sometimes in Egypt. No in Iran.
What is the Obama Doctrine? It seems to be one of disengagement, to try to ignore the hot, religious, dry, poor countries from Algeria to Pakistan.
Around the same time of my somewhat disturbing conversations with U.S. policy experts on the Middle East, I met with a group of American business leaders: Internet innovators, tycoons, big money bankers and hedge fund managers. They talked about biotech, robotics, China and fracking in North America. They talked about the human genome project and supercomputers and 3D printing. There was no mention at all of the Middle East. The arch of instability wedged between Europe and the Sahara Desert seemed to be written off, a sand trap for moguls to avoid at Augusta. The Sunnis and Shiites living in the footprint of the old Ottoman Empire would simply have to find their way, killing themselves if they had to.
Perhaps this is the new U.S. policy toward the Middle East, a deliberate look away. It may also be a fantasy. A half a billion people live in the region from Algeria to Pakistan, and there is a tiny state in the middle of it called Israel, which has nuclear weapons and and many powerful friends.
America openly talks of pivoting to Asia, but consider this: In February 2012, President Obama was in Myanmar, meeting Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and discussing how the once-closed junta was returning to the community of nations that trade together. It was the Asia pivot in action. The President, however, spent much of the trip on the telephone, managing a minor war between Hamas and Israel.
Like my Egyptian friend, most of the Middle East is frustrated with the lack of a clear U.S. policy these days. People often invent conspiracies to explain the inconsistencies, many of their theories angry, violent and anti-American. The region is struggling to adjust as the United States — the drafted referee of Middle Eastern affairs since the collapse of Europe in WWII — may want to get out of the sandbox.