Obama Absent from the Middle East

The administration has been consistently ineffectual in a crucial region.

The Army term is AWOL: Absent Without Leave. Take off without permission from your commander and you’re AWOL. Today, mounting evidence suggests the president might be AWOL on Middle East policy—ignoring, without the permission of the American people, an area where the United States has vital interests.

Looking at the president’s record the last few months, a pattern starts to emerge.

After the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Washington focused on who said and knew what, when. But concentrating on those points misses the bigger issue.

There is no question this incident caught the White House by surprise. They had not prepared to talk about Libya as a new al Qaeda battleground, and that clearly showed in their Keystone Kops response in the aftermath of the attack. But why?

Al Qaeda has been at war with the State Department since 1998, when it bombed—simultaneously—our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. We have embassies, consulates and missions all over the world that the State Department considers “high-risk” posts. All are continuously in al Qaeda’s crosshairs. Yet, the Benghazi attack blindsided them?

The Hamas-Israel-Egypt pas de trois seemed equally confounding.

When Hamas and Israel started trading shots, it was clear that Washington wanted to keep the two from coming to blows—as in an Israeli military campaign into Gaza. Egypt seized the moment, aggressively inserting itself as a mediator to broker a ceasefire. But once the White House offered its heartfelt gratitude to Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, it was clear they had no idea of what to do next.

Sensing the vacuum, Morsi “coincidently” decided to issue a decree granting himself broad powers to “protect” the nation and legislate without judicial oversight. Again, President Obama appeared not to see this one coming. Worse, when the announcement was made, the administration didn’t even denounce Morsi for trying to become a sectarian Mubarak overnight. Instead, it blinked.

Only after protests broke out in the street did the United States regain sufficient equilibrium to emit even a modicum of support for pro-democracy voices. Indeed, the American response was so stunningly tepid, that rumors of quid pro quo spread on the Arab Street. In exchange for getting Hamas to stop using Gaza as a Cape Canaveral aimed at Israel, the whispers said, Obama gave Morsi the “green light” to set up a Sunni Egypt. That’s a pretty far-fetched scenario. The far more likely reason: the White House was merely clueless.

Meanwhile, back at the UN, in direct defiance of President Obama’s request, the Palestinian Authority pushed for a vote to upgrade its status to nonmember statehood. What really stood out here was how countries like Portugal, which in the past normally abstained on these votes, switched their votes to “yea.” They did this under pressure from France, and they held the bad news back from Washington until the last minute. Again, the president looked out of touch with events.

And what about Mali and the al Qaeda-inspired Islamist outbreak in the north of that country? The European Union, Economic Community of West African States and African Union are scrambling to put together a military assistance package for the beleaguered nation. It’s being designed with an eye toward winning—not the conflict, but the UN Security Council’s stamp of approval. The mission has all the makings of another ineffectual, multinational—and totally hair-brained—scheme. And the United States is doing little to prod the schemers toward developing a more coherent strategy.

Finally, has the administration ever been serious about Syria? The administration has a few disconnected operations ongoing there. But mostly it seems content with cheerleading for the opposition, and pretending that it actually is influencing Russia’s relations vis-à-vis Damascus. Rather than vigorously engage with surrounding nations like Turkey and Iraq and work with the Persian Gulf Arab countries to create a real band-of-brothers response, the president looks more like he couldn’t be bothered.

One misstep in the Middle East is unexceptional. But a pattern of apparent indifference in one of the world’s most important and troubled places? Forget AWOL; that sounds like desertion.

James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy issues for The Heritage Foundation.

Image: Flickr/Joe Bielawa.