WASHINGTON (AP) — From Egypt to Syria to Iraq and beyond, the Obama administration is determined to show it will only go so far to help save nations in chaos from themselves.
President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he favors a foreign policy of consultation and negotiation, but not intervention, in the persistent and mostly violent upheavals across the Mideast. And even as Egypt's military overthrew its Islamist government on Wednesday, Washington maintained its hands-off approach to nationwide turbulence in one of the United States' most important Arab allies.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki Wednesday, speaking just before the new government was announced, said the Obama administration is concerned about Egypt, but called for talks to plot a solution. There was no immediate response from the State Department or the White House after the Egyptian military's order.
"We think that all sides need to engage with each other and need to listen to the voices of the Egyptian people, and what they are calling for, and peacefully protesting about," Psaki said. "And that's a message we've conveyed at all levels to all sides."
Psaki steered clear of directly criticizing ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, whose whereabouts were not immediately known after the military's announcement Wednesday. But she noted Morsi could have answered the Egyptian public's concerns, "and he did not take the opportunity to do that."
It was a deliberately muted response to the uproar that has for days gripped Egyptians, many of whom in turn have openly jeered the U.S. for appearing too close to Morsi, despite his hard-line Islamist policies. The White House has gamely struggled since Morsi's election more than a year ago to embrace his presidency, despite fears that his Muslim Brotherhood power base would revert to its anti-American and anti-Israel roots instead of taking a more moderate stance towards peace.
It should come as little surprise that Obama, who is grappling with a recovering economy, a war-weary public at home and diminished U.S. status as a global superpower abroad, would not wade into foreign conflicts. Obama campaigned by promising to end the war in Iraq, which he did in 2011; he now plans to withdraw most, if not all, U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year and inevitably will face pitched pleas from Kabul to reconsider as the deadline nears.
U.S. polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone," Obama wrote in his 2010 National Security Strategy. "Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power."
In Egypt, American officials had given Morsi strong suggestions — tied to billions of dollars in aid — to ease tensions but went unheeded. Officials in Washington and Cairo said Wednesday there are no plans for U.S. military intervention in Egypt, although a unit of about 500 Marines remain on standby in the nearby Red Sea, where it has been stationed for some time.
The White House also has long resisted deploying troops to Syria. Additionally, and despite criticism from some in Congress and allies abroad, Obama refused until last month to give weapons to Syrian rebels who have been battling for more than two years to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The arms — a tepid show of guns, ammunition and shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades — only came after U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. Other Sunni-dominated Mideast nations, most notably Qatar, have provided heavier weapons to help the rebels beat back Iranian forces and aid that is flowing to Assad's regime.
An estimated 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Rebel commanders have been underwhelmed by the U.S. support, saying they need enough firepower to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to stop his tanks and heavy artillery. The Free Syrian Army, which is made up of some opposition forces, also wants allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent Assad's superior air power from crushing the rebels or killing civilians.
The White House is, at best, highly reluctant to create such a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.
Even American officials say the help to Syria is not enough.
The light weapons are "clearly not only insufficient, it's insulting," said Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican proponent of taking a bigger military role in Syria.
McCain and several other hawkish Republicans also have criticized Obama for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, where violence has dramatically escalated since their departure 18 months ago.
The Obama administration agreed to the longstanding 2011 withdrawal deadline, which was set by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, after negotiations fell through to keep some U.S. forces in Iraq. But American officials involved in the negotiations have blamed the White House for making only a weak effort to keep troops in the country and being all too happy when the Shiite-led government in Baghdad refused to let them stay.
Despite nearly nine years of war that aimed to stabilize Iraq — during which nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and about $800 billion in taxpayer money was spent — near-daily bombings and other attacks continue. And the White House rarely, if ever, discusses Iraq except to pat itself on the back for leaving.
In June alone, 761 Iraqis were killed and nearly 1,800 wounded in terror-related violence, the U.N. envoy in Baghdad said in a statement this week. Comparatively, that's about twice as many killed in the deadliest month of 2011 before the American troops left, according to data from the British-based Iraq Body Count.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state from late 2009 until early this year, said the administration's strategy in the Mideast may be a not-so-subtle reminder that the U.S. is no longer willing — or able — to play either world policeman or peacekeeper. But, in the case of Egypt, Wittes said the White House may no longer have enough sway to advise a political transition, even if it wanted to do so.
The U.S. should be urging the new Egyptian government to stabilize its roiled economy quickly and prevent the country from plunging even deeper into political instability, Wittes said, adding, "There's a role for the United States to be weighing in."
However, "for better or worse, we're in a position now where the United States has to some extent alienated the political opposition, and by not standing with Morsi, I suppose they've also alienated the Muslim Brotherhood," Wittes said Wednesday. "So I don't think the U.S. finds itself with a lot of ready audiences."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
PHOTO: Opponents of Egypt's Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi celebrate outside the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 3, 2013. A statement on the Egyptian president's office's Twitter account has quoted Mohammed Morsi as calling military measures "a full coup." The denouncement was posted shortly after the Egyptian military announced it was ousting Morsi, who was Egypt's first freely elected leader but drew ire with his Islamist leanings. The military says it has replaced him with the chief justice of the Supreme constitutional Court, called for early presidential election and suspended the Islamist-backed constitution. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)