The Obama administration’s hands-off approach to Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza is emblematic of what analysts see as an evolving diplomatic approach that’s easing the United States out of its longstanding role as chief referee for Middle Eastern conflicts.
For more than a year, analysts say, American diplomats have adopted a more laissez-faire stance, which was accelerated by the Arab Spring and its new crop of leaders who are eager to prove themselves on the world stage without the old order’s dependence on U.S. backing. The Obama administration appears only too happy to bequeath its former role to allies such as Egypt and Turkey; U.S. officials are vocal about the plan to disengage from the Middle East and focus on less troublesome parts of the world.
“The United States has checked out of the issue and essentially has ceded the arena,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. “I don’t think they’re appearing to be absent – I think they are absent.”
The State Department also seems to have decided that more distance – from Middle Eastern allies and enemies alike – might spare the government from getting too entangled in high-stakes conflicts that drag on for months or years. U.S. diplomats already have been burned by what some critics consider an overzealous early approach to the Arab protest movements: Backing a weak and divided government in Libya, riling up wary Egyptians by funneling money to pro-democracy groups too soon after the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, and calling for regime change in Syria with no clear strategy for U.S. involvement.
Some analysts say the United States is wise to stay on the sidelines in the Arab struggle for self-determination after a long era of autocrats, many of whom were close U.S. allies. Even before the Arab Spring, they said, the U.S. government was subtly disengaging from the Middle East, and especially from the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s part of a broader rethinking of American priorities, part of this ‘pivot’ to Asia and the Pacific which better suits their interests,” Elgindy said. “This region has been nothing but trouble for a long time.”
Egypt is central to the U.S. goal of easing its focus from the Arab world, but it comes with a big gamble: trusting newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart who now must balance Egypt’s shared security interests with Israel against domestic pressure to show solidarity with the Palestinians.
So far, Morsi has won praise for his maneuvering, which hasn’t crossed the United States’ red lines. While Morsi has allowed dozens of foreign reporters and Egyptian aid workers to cross into Gaza from Egypt, he’s kept out an influx of Palestinians, just as did his predecessor, Mubarak. While Morsi withdrew the Egyptian ambassador to Israel to protest civilian casualties in Gaza, he hasn’t expelled the Israeli ambassador to Cairo.
And anything as drastic as threatening the Camp David accord, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, seems off the table – the Egyptians don’t want responsibility for Gaza and already are dealing with the conflict’s cross-border effects of weapons smuggling and militant organizing. Morsi’s biggest test will be whether he can pull off a cease-fire inked in Cairo.
“The U.S. is allowing the Egyptians to take the lead on this because they believe the Egyptians will be pragmatic and can deliver Hamas and won’t contravene Camp David,” said Leila Hilal, who spent years as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team and is now director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, a research center in Washington.
“Now, the thinking is: Egypt can play that role and Israel will have to accept it. It’s the new regional order,” Hilal said. “This is an intention to back off and decrease American engagement in the region, not necessarily as a dismissive approach, but more, ‘Why not let Egypt be the counterpart to Israel?’ They’re the neighbors, and they have a clear set of interests the U.S. appreciates.”
The old model of U.S. engagement was “hub and spoke,” with the United States at the center of regional players, said Michael Singh, who served as a senior Middle East director for the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and is now managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Even regional neighbors dealt with one another largely via American interlocutors, he said.
Now, Singh said, the hub has fallen out, and as a result, smaller groupings of Arab and allied states are emerging to vie for that central role – Turkey and Egypt, for example, or the Persian Gulf powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But Singh said ceding the leadership role could be detrimental to long-term U.S. interests in the Middle East, which is still an important oil supplier and source of militant groups that aim to attack U.S. interests.
Singh said that U.S. leaders “don’t have the choice of ignoring the Middle East,” though that certainly seemed to be the message from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech Saturday at the beginning of a tour of Southeast Asia. Clinton told an audience in Singapore that economics would be at the heart of a new U.S. foreign policy, to include a much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“Amid everything going on, she gives a speech basically saying that our future’s in Asia, not in the Middle East,” Singh said. “We have to recognize that we have enduring interests in this region.”
After so many years as the main driver in the Middle East, the U.S. shift to backseat diplomacy is sure to be bumpy. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tried to defend the administration’s “quiet diplomacy” during a relentless line of questioning from Associated Press reporter Matt Lee, a notoriously hard-nosed journalist who’d challenged her on the U.S. “silence” on Gaza.
Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes for six days, killing at least 101 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, in a campaign against Hamas, the militant group that controls the strip. In the same period, three Israelis died as a result of a rocket that was launched from Gaza and struck an office building. At least 100 more rockets were launched Monday, with no casualties reported. Regional tensions, already exacerbated by the Syrian civil war and rocky transitions in North Africa, are dangerously high.
“Well, you’ve been doing your quiet diplomacy for almost a week. How’s it going so far?” Lee asked the spokeswoman, his voice oozing sarcasm.
Nuland tried to respond, but Lee cut her off, saying, “You’re staying silent while people are dying left and right.” The spokeswoman accused Lee of picking a fight and quickly moved on to another reporter after repeating the administration’s Gaza talking points: Israel has the right to defend itself, and the United States regrets civilian casualties on both sides.
“We’ve made a decision that we need to engage in our diplomacy diplomatically,” Nuland said.