WASHINGTON — The military overthrow of the democratically elected government in Egypt, for decades America's most important Arab ally, has rekindled a fierce debate about whether the Obama administration's Mideast policy has been too passive and ineffective.
President Obama declared that U.S. allegiance was to "democratic principles" after Egypt's military ousted President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday, but critics charge that the White House made only halfhearted attempts to steer Morsi's increasingly authoritarian government toward democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.
"They've been late, and slow, and not taken these problems seriously," Michele Dunne, a former State Department official and administration advisor on Egypt who now heads the nonpartisan Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Friday.
Obama repeatedly failed "to use leverage to ensure that Egyptian authorities adhere to democratic principles," the Project on Middle East Democracy, an advocacy group in Washington, said in a statement.
The critics, who include Democratic foreign policy stalwarts as well as Republicans, say the upheaval in Egypt, on top of the administration's inability to stem the civil war in Syria or persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program, adds a blot to Obama's foreign policy record.
They blame, in part, Obama's desire to reduce America's overseas commitments after a decade of war, along with his apparent effort to pull back from a leadership position in favor of a more supporting role in the Middle East.
Administration officials say in their defense that Washington has limited influence in Egypt's domestic affairs and that visible efforts to apply U.S. pressure can backfire. They say they have dealt with key political players but have often kept their diplomacy quiet to avoid inflaming Egypt's polarized political environment.
After President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in an "Arab Spring" uprising in February 2011, the White House tried to encourage a transition to democracy. In national elections in June 2012, Morsi won 52% of the presidential vote and his party — the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood — won 48% in parliamentary elections.
Morsi cooperated with Obama in working out a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in November, and White House aides hoped for a relationship with Cairo that could be a model for other Islamist-dominated countries. The chief focus was security cooperation, including joint counter-terrorism operations and support for Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Critics now say the U.S. focus on security meant the White House was unwilling to push back when Egypt's military abused human rights, including ordering military trials for 10,000 civilians accused in connection with the 2011 protests, and when the Morsi government began trying to monopolize power.
"Washington was embarrassingly quiet," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.
In November, Morsi declared that his presidential decisions were largely beyond judicial review. The move signaled that he had all but ruled out power sharing with political opponents and appeared headed toward a confrontation with the pro-democracy forces that had helped topple Mubarak.
After an internal debate, the White House chose caution in criticizing Morsi. The opposition seemed deeply divided and less worthy of U.S. attention, in the administration's view.
Last month, as anti-Morsi protests spilled into the streets, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson urged opponents to engage with the government rather than seek its overthrow.
"Some say that street action will produce better results than elections," she told an Egyptian think tank June 18. "To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical."
The opposition read that as a sign of America's commitment to Morsi and a lack of U.S. concern about good governance and human rights.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. diplomat and advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the administration's failure to object more loudly was a serious mistake.
"Our failure to stand against Morsi when he began trampling on minority rights convinced the secular opposition that we were now in his corner," Indyk wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. "We appeared to be shifting our support from one authoritarian Pharaoh to the next."
U.S. officials say it was difficult to work with Morsi's government on economic issues because the Egyptians were suspicious of American motives. Clinton, for example, tried to cobble together a $150-million aid package in early 2011. But Egyptians responded coolly, saying the amount was too small and that they didn't like U.S. conditions on the aid.
U.S. officials and European governments, in particular, talked about developing an international aid framework to assist Egypt's struggling economy, but it never got off the ground. Egypt ultimately turned to Qatar for a $3-billion annual subsidy.