Is Obama 'Leading From Behind' on Egypt?

Critics say Obama has missed opportunities to shape the outcome in Egypt.

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Morsi supporters pray during the Friday prayer before a protest near the University of Cairo, in Giza, Egypt. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
Morsi supporters pray during the Friday prayer before a protest near the University of Cairo, in Giza, Egypt. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

President Obama is treading lightly as he deals with the ongoing crisis in Egypt, even though he risks reviving the charge that he is "leading from behind."

A White House spokesman fed the perception of U.S. passivity when he said Sunday that the United States isn't trying to "dictate how Egypt's transition should proceed," and that Obama believes Egyptians should make that decision, not outsiders. Egypt has been in turmoil since the military overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the elected president, last week and installed Adli Mansour as interim president. Millions of Egyptians considered Morsi and his backers in the radical Muslim Brotherhood failures in governing.

[READ: U.S. Patriotism Slipping]

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pointed out that Morsi had been democratically elected. McCain called Morsi's ouster a coup d'etat and urged Obama to suspend aid to Egypt. "It was a coup and it was the second time in two-and-a-half years that we have seen the military step in," McCain told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. "Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and free and fair elections."

U.S. law requires cutting off American aid to countries where governments came to power by military coup.

Morsi supporters pray during the Friday prayer before a protest near the University of Cairo, in Giza, Egypt. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
Morsi supporters pray during the Friday prayer before a protest near the University of Cairo, in Giza, Egypt. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Prior to taking office, Obama declared that the United States should support democratically elected governments, which should have put him behind the ousted Morsi. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama complained that "the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like Iran" had generated "seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day."

[PHOTOS: Egyptians Take Part in Violent Protests Against Morsi]

Yet Obama seemed to take a hands-off attitude toward such a government in Egypt when it mattered most. He "put little or no tangible pressure on Morsi to end his undemocratic practices, which might have forestalled the most recent crisis," wrote analyst Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution in Sunday's Washington Post.

"It has become fashionable in today's 'post-American world" milieu to argue that the United States had no ability to shape events in Egypt. This is absurd. The United States is far from being all-powerful, but neither is it powerless. Americans provide $1.5 billion a year in assistance to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military. It has leverage over the decisions of the IMF and influence with other international donors on whom Egypt's economy depends."

Kagan added: "The problem is not that the United States has no power but that the Obama administration has been either insufficiently interested or too cautious and afraid to use what power the United States has." To that end, Kagan argued, the administration should suspend all aid to Egypt, especially military aid, until there is a new democratic government that is freely elected, with all parties and groups allowed to participate.

Last year, an anonymous Obama adviser said the president had adopted a strategy of "leading from behind" in some cases rather than blundering into foreign-policy minefields. Obama critics say this remark showed an excessive passivity.

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  • Obama Calls Embattled President Morsi
  • U.S. Moves to Restrict Travel to Egypt
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.