Christians Suffer as U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East Flounders

President Obama these days looks like a homeowner paralyzed in shock as he sees his house ablaze from across the street.  The White House is fine, but the president’s foreign policy in the Middle East is going up in smoke.  As Egypt implodes with escalating violence and the Syrian civil war rages into a second year, Islamists are using these windows of opportunity to lash out with attacks against Christian communities.  Even if President Obama were to break free of his paralysis, none of the major power players in the fast moving and shifting geopolitics of the region would listen to him because the United States has lost much of its prestige and credibility under Obama’s watch.

The Obama administration heaped effusive praise on the popular uprising in Egypt only two years ago.  The revolt led the Egyptian military to push aside President Hosni Mubarak after a three decade-long reign.  President Obama and his then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were euphoric over the emergence of “democracy” in Egypt.  They supported the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government led by President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in 2013 in reasonably free and fair elections.  President Obama stood by the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government even as the Egyptian people took again to the streets to protest its heavy-handed takeover of the reigns of institutional power and its incompetent management of the economy.

The Egyptian military, however, had other plans and once again used street violence as cover to mount a coup on 3 July 2013 against Morsi.  Although the Obama administration has strenuously avoided calling the military intervention a “coup” to avoid a legislatively mandated cut-off of American military assistance to Egypt, the military’s action “walks like a duck and quacks like a duck” making a denial of a military coup ridiculous.  The upshot of these events is that President Obama now finds himself hated by the Muslim Brotherhood—which given its militant Islamic ideology was never going to befriend the United States despite the Obama’s administration naiveté in thinking otherwise—resented by the Egyptian military because he opposed the military coup, and despised in the streets because it is easier for Egyptians to blame foreign conspirators for Egypt’s chaos than to blame themselves.

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President Obama interrupted his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard rubbing elbows with the liberal elite to comment on the escalating violence in Egypt.  He announced the cancellation of a biannual joint military exercise with Egypt and called on protestors to do so peacefully, condemned the attacks, and, in passing, mentioned attacks on churches. It was a remarkably light reference given that President Obama’s foreign policy has focused on supporting democracies in the Middle East.  As anyone knows, key characteristics of democracies beyond elections and divided powers are the protection of freedom of speech, religion, and minorities.

The president’s passing comment about church attacks belied the wide and deep campaign of Islamist violence against Christians who make up an estimated ten percent of Egypt’s nearly ninety million people.  Islamists are settling scores, in part, for the Christian community’s support of the military regime.  More than 60 churches and church-affiliated institutions such as schools, orphanages, monasteries, and shops were attacked, damaged, and often set on fire throughout the country, killing numerous Christians.  In one illustrative incident, Islamists torched a Franciscan school and proceeded to parade three nuns like prisoners of war down city streets. The military regime has not investigated the attacks or bolstered security for Christians in Egypt.  This wave of violence against Christians came in the wake of the military’s brutal use of force on 14 August to dismantle two Muslim Brotherhood camps in Cairo that harbored thousands of people demanding Morsi’s reinstatement as president.  The military’s destruction of the camps killed more than six hundred people.

President Obama’s policy paralysis in the Middle East and silence on the Christian plight continues nearby in Syria.  Syria’s civil war erupted two years ago and has lead to the killing of some 100,000 people by the Assad regime.  It has created a huge refugee flow of hundreds of thousands of people in the region, the effects of which are destabilizing neighboring Jordan and Lebanon.  With much fanfare President Obama in August 2012 publicly warned that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” indicating that the use of chemical weapons would bring about a profound change in what had been a lethargic American policy response to the Syrian civil war.  The Assad regime did not take Obama’s threat serious and went ahead and used chemical weapons as part of its counter-insurgency operations.  Syrian opposition sources, moreover, are reporting as of 21 August that the regime mounted a large chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs, with unconfirmed casualties figures ranging widely from less than one hundred to more than one thousand.

Even though Syria has crossed President Obama’s “red line” his policy response remained sluggish.  Obama eventually promised the supply of lethal military supplies to Syrian opposition forces, but they are still waiting for it as the Syrian regime battles on.  Without the provision of military assistance to Syrian opposition, the United States has “no skin in the game” and no great means to influence the shape or make-up of a possible post-Assad Syrian government.  The power vacuum created by Obama’s indifference is being filled by military assistance from Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Their military assistance, however, is not coordinated, absent American leadership, and much of it is going to militant Islamic Salafists.  They are proving to be the most formidable component of Syria opposition and therefore most likely to gain dominant influence in any the post-Assad regime to the detriment of American security interests.

Meanwhile, the Christian minority in Syria is taking a beating.  Christians—only about 8 percent of Syria’s 23 million people—are gravely worried that should the Assad regime fall, their existence will be threatened because the successor regime would likely be dominated by the most militarily accomplished insurgents which are the Salafists, as well as al Qaeda.  As the civil war wages on, an Italian Jesuit priest, who had a high profile for his efforts over decades to promote religious dialogue in Syria, for several weeks has been missing and feared dead.  Nor has anything been heard from a Syriac archbishop and a Greek Orthodox archbishop who were kidnapped months ago.

Even if President Obama were to reverse course and properly denounce the escalating violence against Christians, none of the major players actively shaping the new geopolitical contours of the Middle East would listen.  The Egyptian military will be more concerned about staying in power in Cairo than by the threat of losing about one and one half billion dollars in yearly American military assistance.  The Egyptian military already has acquired ample supplies of F-16 fighter aircraft and M1 tanks from the United States since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

More significantly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were both horrified by how quickly President Obama and Secretary Clinton abandoned long-term security partner Hosni Mubarak to street mobs.  Clinton in March 2011 toured Tahrir Square that was the epicenter of the political earthquake that toppled Hosni Mubarak.  She exclaimed “To see where this revolution happened and all that it has meant to the world is extraordinary for me… It’s just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and universal desire for human rights and democracy.”

Clinton symbolically danced on the fresh political grave of a long-time American ally.  As a consequence, our Arab Gulf state security partners can too easily envision the American laying in wait to repeat these indulgences in their capitals should they ever suffer from a fate similar to Mubarak’s.  And with the majority of Arab Gulf state populations under the age of 25, unemployed, and frustrated, royal families in the Gulf are acutely aware of the dangers.  Wiser statesmen the likes of President George H. W. Bush and his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft took great pains to avoid similar political backlashes at the end of the Cold War.  Bush made no victory tour on top of the Berlin Wall’s rubble to avoid humiliating his Russian counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev.

Secretary Clinton and President Obama proved them selves to be lesser statesmen and gleefully humiliated Arab Gulf state security partners with their celebration of Mubarak’s ouster.  It is now “pay back” time for the Gulf States.  Saudi Arabia, backed-up by the UAE, is now staunchly backing the Egyptian military and has promised it some $12 billion, a figure that makes annual American military aid to Cairo look trivial.  The Gulf States are emerging as Egypt’s primary external backers to further lessen American influence in Egypt.  And Saudi Arabia, a country in which Christianity is outlawed, is certainly not going to shed any tears for the plight of Christians, either in Egypt, Syria, or anywhere else in the world.

(Photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)


  • Richard L. Russell

    Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A Catholic convert, Russell holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and specializes in foreign policy and international security. He is the author of three books: Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press); Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge); and, George F. Kennan’s Strategic Thought (Praeger). Follow him on Twitter @DrRLRussell.

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