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As Egypt explodes, Barack Obama dithers

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There was hope a few months ago that mounting chaos in the Middle East, and a revamping of President Barack Obama's national security team, would prompt the president to snap out of what looked like a deepening torpor in foreign policy.

Instead, this president's extraordinary passivity in the face of crisis might have achieved its apotheosis last week. On Wednesday, as Egyptian security forces gunned down hundreds of civilians in the streets of Cairo, an unperturbed Obama shot another round of golf at Martha's Vineyard. His deputy press secretary was left to explain to reporters that the administration remained firmly committed to not deciding whether what had happened in Egypt was a coup.

When the president finally deigned to address the crisis himself, on Thursday morning, the result was measured rhetoric — “deplorable” — accompanied by a classic half-measure: A biennial military exercise scheduled for next month will be canceled, sparing the White House some unseemly photo ops. But the deeper relationship with the Egyptian military, including $1.3 billion in annual aid, remains in place.

The crisis in Egypt has been distracting attention from the civil war in Syria, where Obama's stubborn refusal to act has facilitated the emergence of the largest and potentially most dangerous incarnation of al-Qaida since pre-2001 Afghanistan.

Between them, Egypt and Syria prevent most people from thinking much about Yemen — except when an al-Qaida plot to take over much of the country prompts the closure of the U.S. Embassy and a frantic-looking burst of drone strikes.

And never mind Bahrain, another close U.S. ally where another autocratic regime is brutally suppressing protests without a peep of objection from Washington.

Obama looks like a president in full flight from a world that looks nothing like what he imagined when he took office. The president saw himself soothing U.S. relations with Muslim nations while gently extracting U.S. troops from Iraq and focusing his energy on other regions and issues: Asia; nuclear arms control; Israeli-Palestinian peace. What he got was an epochal upheaval in the very place from which he had hoped to disengage.

All presidents face the challenge of adapting to the problems they are presented with rather than those they expect. It could be argued that George W. Bush reacted to the attacks of Sept. 11 with a too-radical reshaping of his worldview and international ambitions. Obama's response to the Arab revolutions has veered to the opposite extreme — a clinging to his overtaken priorities, coupled with a stubborn refusal to recognize that the Arab crises must be a top priority of his foreign policy.

In the last year, U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe have marveled as Obama doggedly pursued a patently futile attempt to engage Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in another round of nuclear arms reduction talks even while tolerating toxic Russian intervention in Syria and rejecting his own national security team's proposal for U.S. action. They have scratched their heads as Secretary of State John F. Kerry, with Obama's blessing, has made the renewal of moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks his central focus while keeping a safe distance from Egypt.

Incredibly, some officials close to Kerry were arguing in recent weeks that one reason not to designate Egypt's coup a coup was to avoid dampening the Mideast “peace process” — whose prospects for success are invisible to all outside the administration, including the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Never mind the burning city, goes the logic; we've got our hands full building this Potemkin village.

The Arab revolutions demand bold initiatives from the United States and any other outside power seeking to influence their outcome. Airstrikes to break the Syrian military would have been one; a cutoff of military aid to Egypt would have been another. But in foreign policy, Obama is a president of half-measures, of endless internal debates followed by split-the-difference presidential decisions that serve no one's strategy. Instead of an intervention in Syria that might make a difference, token shipments of arms are being sent to the rebels; instead of a decisive break with Egypt's out-of-control generals, a pointless exercise is called off.

If there is any virtue to this record, it is that the reaction to it is reviving an internationalist wing of the Democratic Party that, by the end of the Bush administration, appeared nearly dead. Not just the usual neocons but Democrat senators such as Carl Levin and Robert Menendez are faulting Obama's failure to act more forcefully in Syria. Not just Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham but The New York Times editorial board is demanding a suspension of military aid to Egypt.

Obama might have meant to retire the doctrine of the United States as the world's “indispensable nation.” Instead, the disastrous results of his persistent passivity might lead to its revival.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

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