US may have less Mideast clout, uses it with care

Events in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria show limit of US influence following Arab Spring, US reluctance to exercise its clout.

June 17, 2012 09:43
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama speaks at G8 summit

US President Barack Obama speaks at G8 summit 370 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Winning)


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WASHINGTON - Events in Egypt, Bahrain and Syria illustrate the limits of US influence in the Middle East following the Arab Spring and a US reluctance, at times, to exercise such clout as it has.

Court rulings in Egypt and in Bahrain this week, analysts say, show the ruling authorities' desire to maintain their grip on power and the United States' limited ability to shape events despite its general support for democracy.

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After decades in which Washington has been the region's dominant outside player, deploying its military to guarantee the flow of oil and its diplomatic muscle to advance peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the pro-democracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring appear to have changed the equation.

US President Barack Obama's early hopes of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal have foundered.

And US blunders in Iraq, where violence persists nine years after a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, have also eroded US credibility, Middle East analysts said.

"When questions become ones of life and death, people are less interested in what the United States has to say," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

"We have had a long relationship with the Egyptian military and when it comes to existential issues, they will listen politely but they strongly believe that they understand both their population and their national interest better than well-meaning Americans," Alterman added.

Egypt's supreme court ruled on Thursday to dissolve the newly-elected parliament that is dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and to allow ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister to run in this weekend's presidential race.

The rulings are widely viewed as an effort by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military authorities who have ruled the country since Mubarak's Feb. 11, 2011 ouster, to undercut the Brotherhood and to strengthen its own hand.

And in Syria, having for now ruled out a military intervention without international support, the United States has been unable to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed 10,000 people in a crackdown on protest against Assad's rule. A UN monitoring mission, whose presence the United States hoped might help quell the strife, on Saturday suspended its operations.

It is unclear what Washington plans to do to try to end the conflict given Russian reluctance to see Assad ousted.

The State Department on Friday said that it was troubled by the Egyptian supreme court's ruling, it wanted new parliamentary elections to be conducted quickly, and the SCAF should turn over power on July 1 after a free and fair presidential election.

Egypt's military has promised to hand over power by July 1 following this weekend's second round of the presidential election that pits the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy against former general Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak protege.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who leads the SCAF, on Friday and stressed "the need to ensure a full and peaceful transition to democracy," the Pentagon said.

Tantawi repeated the military's commitment to hold free and fair presidential election and to turn over power to a democratically elected government on July 1, the Pentagon said.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the United States has leverage in Egypt because of its aid, which could be cut next year, and in Bahrain because of the ruling family's sensitivity to US criticism.

"That's the big difference between Egypt and Bahrain on the one hand and Syria on the other," she said. "There were times when the US government thought its words, in public and in private, might have some impact on ... Bashar Assad.

"We are clearly not at that point any more. Bashar Assad clearly doesn't care what the United States thinks any more and therefore the rhetoric doesn't matter," she said.

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