WASHINGTON -- 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.