As the political crisis in Egypt deepens and international outcry grows following a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria, the Obama administration must tread carefully while using what leverage it has to prevent further mass carnage.
In Egypt and Syria, swift policy changes could ensnare the U.S. in a costly and complex intervention that the American public clearly does not want. At the same time, Obama must work with U.S. allies and the international community to make clear to leaders in Egypt and Syria there will be consequences for escalating atrocities.
So far, that message has failed to be delivered in a credible way. When the White House determined in June that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime had used chemical weapons on opposition fighters and crossed President Barack Obama's proclaimed "red line," there were no serious repercussions, only the promise of limited support for Syrian rebel groups. That only emboldened al-Assad's regime.
If it is confirmed that chemical weapons were behind deaths of hundreds of civilians in the Syrian capital this week, the United States will have to act against Al-Assad, but it should only do so as part of an international coalition.
The president was right when he said in a CNN interview that if the U.S. rushed to take action, it could "result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
That was the result when former president George W. Bush cobbled together a "coalition of the willing" with minimal international support to invade Iraq a quagmire that hurt U.S. standing in the region at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
To avoid becoming mired in another protracted intervention, Obama must do what he can to marshal an international coalition to protect civilians in Syria a challenge given Russia and China's refusal to sanction any such action through the United Nations Security Council.
The situation in Egypt demands a similarly steady hand, especially as three major U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have lined up to support the Egyptian military and its deadly crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of ousted president Mohammed Morsi. The United States can ill afford to be seen as part of this trio. While Obama has been tepid in his comments about Egypt's generals, he has been wise not to reflexively cut off aid to Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military assistance. Such an impulsive action would leave him with fewer levers to pull in Egypt, even with questions about whether Egypt's leaders would respond to such pressure.
For now, the administration must keep much of its focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. A breakthrough, however unlikely, would increase U.S. standing in a region of the world that ends up consuming too much of our foreign policy attention.
Remember China and the Pacific Rim? Obama was going to focus on that in his second term. As we have seen, the Middle East has a way of distracting and dragging down presidents.