When last year’s Arab Spring arrived in Egypt, threatening a long-time U.S. ally and source of crucial regional stability, President Obama chose to take a hands-off approach to the crisis. Egypt’s centrality to peace in the region cannot be understated. The country’s 1978 peace accord with Israel is the bedrock of the decades of peace seen between Israel and most of her Arab neighbors. It is the largest and most dynamic country in the region, controls a key international shipping lane, and is very well armed.
Still, Mr. Obama chose to take an approach then charitably characterized as leading from behind: allowing the various factions inside Egypt to work their will, even if it meant the fall of then-President Hosni Mubarak – a long-time friend and ally against terrorism. Mr. Obama simply did what he always does, spelling out what he’d like to see happen without actually working toward accomplishing it.
This so-called leading from behind was typical of Mr. Obama. It is well known in Washington that Barack Obama does not like to get his hands dirty, preferring instead to take a hands-off approach to leadership, make speeches, express what he wants, and then back away.
It’s much like golf, the game Mr. Obama loves so much. In golf, you don’t get dirty. There isn’t any running, jumping, sliding, tackling, or diving in golf. Hell, you don’t even jog and sometimes you don’t even walk between holes. The game even comes with its own aides. It’s the perfect Obama past-time.
Mr. Obama treated Egypt’s Arab Spring like one of his many, many golf games – stepping up, making his shot, and then casually sitting back and watching what happened before leisurely moving on to the next hole.
The problem is that the world is not a golf course and foreign policy is often a contact sport – something that events in Egypt have made painfully clear.
After Mubarak fell, his Muslim Brotherhood enemies took over in Egypt’s first ever free election. Mr. Obama praised the results without explicitly endorsing the new Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and sent a new ambassador to work with the new government – a nice, clean shot onto the proverbial fairway.
Things began to fall apart soon thereafter. Morsi’s government became increasingly theocratic and authoritative, excluding many secular Egyptians from the process and quickly turning them against the newly-elected leadership. Mr. Obama remained silent as his ambassador got ever-closer to Morsi and his allies in an attempt to keep things running smoothly without getting America’s hands dirty.
Just last month, Egypt’s military had seen enough, removing President Morsi and his cronies from power with the full backing of the Egyptian public. Mr. Obama again remained muted, choosing instead to pretend as if not much had happened – as if he were quietly watching his playing partner line up a putt. Egyptians noticed the silence, protesting against what they saw as the administration’s implicit support for Moris and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s military are nearing open civil war, with hundreds of deaths as security forces crack down on weeks-long Islamist protests that have disrupted the country and crippled efforts at reconciliation.
Today, the president interrupted his latest vacation to announce his response. Finally, it appeared he would show real leadership and take action. Instead, he lamely continued playing at golf-course diplomacy, scolding both sides as if they were children and announcing the cancellation of a joint military exercise with the Egyptian army – the diplomatic equivalent of a one-stroke penalty.
The bloodshed in Egypt this week proves that Mr. Obama’s golf-course diplomacy has failed. It is not enough for him to merely sit back, take his swing, and watch what happens – forceful action is needed before this critically-important country spirals into chaos or civil war.
America must choose a side and back that choice up with action, not more rhetoric, before it is too late.
Matt Cover is Content Editor at Rare. Follow him on Twitter @MattCover