Middle East Players Move on, Build Blocs without a By-Your-Leave from Washington
The kaleidoscope of Middle East alliances is being radically rejigged into new configurations to fill the blanks left by the Obama administration’s policies. This is most dramatically evident in Egypt in the second week after the military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood July 3 in a coup d’etat with strong popular support.
The shootout in Cairo Monday, July 8, in which 53 supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi and two officers were killed, cast an ominous cloud over the process, but by then Washington had little say in what was going on in Cairo.
A situation has evolved in the Middle East – which we will analyze in the coming articles in this issue -whereby Russia, Iran, Syria and Hizballah exploited the Obama administration’s withdrawal from the Levant to muscle in on Beirut and Damascus and make sure President Bashar Assad wins the Syrian civil war. Now, senior US allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are stepping in to usurp the waning US influence in Cairo. They are putting in place the first building block of a firm Sunni alliance, in which Israel will have a quiet look-in, to counter the Shiite-dominated Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah bloc.
Both groupings leave Washington behind.
(See the last DEBKA Weekly Issue 594 of July 5: Another Sunni Bloc Takes Shape, This One Centering on Saudi Arabia and Egypt).
Bumbling, muddled, laggard diplomacy was deliberate
After the fatal clash in Cairo last Monday, White House Spokesman Jay Carney said only this: “We are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place.” He stood by the administration’s refusal to call the dismissal of Egyptian President Morsi a coup.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and Cairo report that the administration’s behind-the-scenes handling of the Egyptian crisis was bumbling and muddled.
Worst of all, the main players, Egypt’s army chiefs headed by Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nur party, the Persian Gulf states and Israel, decided that the muddle was not the outcome of indecision but calculated.
They felt that the Obama administration was determined to shy away from the burgeoning crisis in the most populous Arab country and he had no strategic game plan other than to dodge any US military involvement in the Middle East.
To maintain that position, the White House left policy largely in the hands of Anne Patterson,US Ambassador to Cairo.
All the contestants turn against America
Her handling of the crisis consisted of four moves, each of them a step or more behind events:
1. When the military coup was all set to go, she tried to persuade the military chiefs and leading politicians to carry on working with the elected government headed by Prime Minister Hisham Kandil.
She was reaching out for the impossible. Kandil was a primary target of the popular uprising against the government, due to his policy of rubber-stamping Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-democratic steps and his mismanagement of the economy which brought Egypt to the brink of bankruptcy.
2. When that didn’t work, Ambassador Patterson proposed in the moments before the coup that Morsi be kept on as a figurehead president stripped of powers.
How to explain this move? All along her tenure as ambassador, she was chummy with the Muslim Brotherhood in the service of Barack Obama’s inclusive policies of promoting tolerance for Muslims at home and engaging moderate Muslim forces outside America.
Patterson shared the US president’s perception of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a force for moderation, disregarding their ineptness to govern.
Her plan to save Morsi managed to turn all the players in the crisis, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its opponents on the street, against the United States.
US diplomat too slow to avert Brotherhood intifada
3. All the same, notwithstanding the large Brotherhood supporters’ banners accusing her personally and Obama of nurturing terrorism, the US ambassador did her best to persuade the new strongman, Gen. El-Sisi, who had just placed Morsi in detention, to embark on dialogue for national reconciliation with the Brotherhood. She insisted that the Brothers be assured of a place in the next government after parliamentary elections, which the provisional president announced would be held in February 2014.
Patterson’s demands might have achieved some traction had they come in time, possibly even averting a collision between the Islamists and the army.
But by then, it was too late: The Muslim Brotherhood had already set in motion an ambush to trap the army in a bloody clash with multiple Muslim fatalities. This was a secret ploy designed to kick off the Brotherhood’s “intifada” – a synonym for a campaign of terror – and activate its armed underground group Al-Gihas Al-Sirri.
4. And finally, while Washington dithered over whether to continue US aid to Egypt – $1.3 billion of mostly military assistance – Patterson failed to grasp how closely Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf emirates – and Israel too – were committed to helping Gen. El-Sisi expel Islamist rule from Cairo.
A shouting match among the deaf
This may not have been entirely her fault: President Obama and CIA chief John Brennan did not brief her adequately on this point – either out of ignorance, or their failure to appreciate its enormous ramifications for the Middle East and its fluctuating friendships and affiliations.
There is no way to explain how the Obama administration could have overlooked this information and failed to face up to the new situation it presented for the region.
Like a past shouting match among the deaf, the US ambassador’s performance in the Egyptian crisis strongly recalled a previous diplomatic malfunction from another era under another US president which led to Gulf War One.
In 1991, under President George H. W. Bush, US Ambassador to Baghdad, April Catherine Glaspie, met Saddam Hussein, who wanted to find out how the US would respond to his plans to invade Kuwait. Glaspie told him: 'We have no opinion on the Arab–Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”
The US State Department had earlier informed Saddam that Washington had “no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.”
This led Saddam to assume that the United States would not oppose an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the annexation of its oil fields. The Bush administration, of course, had on no account meant to give the Iraqi dictator a green light, but that is how he interpreted the diplomat’s noncommittal comment.
It took the first US war on Iraq to repair the damage wrought by maladroit diplomacy. The sum total of the damage caused in Egypt 22 years later has yet to unfold.