Analysis: Obama's grand plan for Mideast shrinks

By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

"But I'll be honest with you, as Syria falls into chaos with 130,000 dead, and the king of Jordan and Lebanon deal with the effects of a raging war in Syria, as Iraq begins to fall apart, as the Iranians enrich, we have to put this in the context of the world at large," Graham said.

Criticism from Republicans such as Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who echoed his colleague's sentiments at the Jerusalem news conference, is to be expected. But it is coming from other quarters as well.

Senior members of the Saudi royal family have disparaged the United States on Syria and voiced their skepticism of the rapprochement with Iran.

Saudi frustration has become so intense that the kingdom took the unprecedented step of turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council to protest inaction on Syria, and last week announced a $3 billion gift to the Lebanese army to help it battle extremists.

While publicly welcoming Kerry's peace efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned against his diplomacy with Iran and tried to scuttle it.

Some, including current and former U.S. officials, worry that even the perception of disengagement is problematic and counterproductive. Their litany of complaints stretches from North Africa to Central Asia, and includes:

A failure to carry through on threats to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad's government for its use of chemical weapons.

Not taking a tougher stand on the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Not insisting on keeping a residual force in Iraq or offering greater support to the Iraqi government earlier.

An inability to seal the deal to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

Seeking out a partnership with Iran while de-emphasizing engagement with nascent democracies in Tunisia and Libya.

The administration has adopted an "uncertain tone" in Iraq that has left a negative impression that is seen "so often in this region," James F. Jeffrey, an ex-senior State Department official and ambassador to Baghdad, wrote in an essay this past week.

The administration is "seemingly signaling to everyone that 'Job One' is not getting us in any sort of military engagement — not just some new Vietnam, but any new cruise missile raid, or small continuing military presence in Afghanistan, or perhaps a few dozen uniformed U.S. (counterterrorism) experts to advise Iraqis on how to take down al-Qaida in Fallujah," Jeffrey said. "The result has been an extraordinary collapse of our credibility in the region, despite many commendable administration actions."

Jeffrey makes the case that the administration seems to be trying to insulate itself from criticism and in doing so is actually sending the wrong message.

"What goes missing with such a focus is empathy for the impact our words have on foreigners — our allies, partners, and foes around the world," he wrote. "They are also an audience, and the former two keep 'voting with their feet,' from turning down Security Council Seats to any given Tel Aviv news conference. Until this all changes, chaos will continue to threaten us, in the Middle East and elsewhere."

The administration adamantly rejects such complaints.

"The policy of the administration is that diplomacy should be the first option," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday. She noted that Obama and Kerry have restarted the Middle East peace talks, opened direct talks with Iran and moved to rid Syria of chemical weapons without military strikes.

Just this weekend, she pointed out, Kerry will be meeting with Syrian opposition supporters and Arab League officials in Paris to discuss Syria and the peace process.

"To argue that we are not actively engaged in diplomatic efforts around the world is completely inaccurate and is baseless," Psaki said.

"The issue with some of these (complaints) is it seems to equate engagement with military action, and engagement should not be measured by military action. Diplomacy is our first priority. ... It's never in our interests to have troops in the middle of every single conflict in the Middle East or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East."

Observers such as Jeffrey suggest that reasoning is too narrow.

The administration "conflates any military action with Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as if it's all a slippery slope — and it isn't," he said. "They haven't sorted out the difference between total war and using military forces intelligently — from the air, from ships, using special forces, using aid, giving weapons, helping people with advice. That's what we need to do. And there is no easy answer."

Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee has covered international affairs and U.S. foreign policy since 1999 and for The Associated Press since 2007. Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Deb Reichmann contributed reporting to this report. Follow Matthew Lee at http://twitter.com/APDiploWriter

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