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Obama leery of intervention in Mideast

Thursday - 7/4/2013, 11:08am  ET

FILE - In this Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 file photo, anti-government protesters gathered in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, watch a screen showing U.S. President Barack Obama live on a TV broadcast from Washington, speaking about the situation in Egypt. U.S. officials say the Obama administration delivered pointed warnings Tuesday, July 2, 2013 to three main players in the latest crisis to grip Egypt as hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster over his hard-line Islamist policies. The powerful Egyptian military appeared poised to overthrow him. The administration stopped short of demanding that Morsi take specific steps, the officials said, and instead offered strong suggestions that are backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid to ease the tensions. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- From Egypt to Syria to Iraq and beyond, the Obama administration is determined to show it will only go so far to help save nations in chaos from themselves.

President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he favors a foreign policy of consultation and negotiation, but not intervention, in the persistent and mostly violent upheavals across the Mideast. And even as Egypt's military overthrew its Islamist government on Wednesday, Washington maintained a measured approach to nationwide turbulence in one of the United States' most important Arab allies.

In a firmly worded statement, Obama called on the Egyptian military to relinquish power to a democratically elected civilian government and to resist arresting ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters. He also said the U.S. will review whether Egypt is still eligible for $1.5 billion that Washington gives in economic and military aid annually.

Calling himself "deeply concerned" about the turmoil, Obama nonetheless maintained "that, ultimately the future of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people."

"The longstanding partnership between the United States and Egypt is based on shared interests and values, and we will continue to work with the Egyptian people to ensure that Egypt's transition to democracy succeeds," Obama said.

It was a muted response compared to the uproar that has for days gripped Egyptians, many of whom in turn have openly jeered the U.S. for appearing too close to Morsi, despite his hard-line Islamist policies. The White House has gamely struggled since Morsi's election more than a year ago to embrace his presidency, despite fears that his Muslim Brotherhood power base would revert to its anti-American and anti-Israel roots instead of taking a more moderate stance towards peace.

It should come as little surprise that Obama, who is grappling with a recovering economy, a war-weary public at home and diminished U.S. status as a global superpower abroad, would not wade into foreign conflicts. Obama campaigned by promising to end the war in Iraq, which he did in 2011; he now plans to withdraw most, if not all, U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year and inevitably will face pitched pleas from Kabul to reconsider as the deadline nears.

U.S. polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone," Obama wrote in his 2010 National Security Strategy. "Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power."

Experts say the administration's Mideast strategy may be a not-so-subtle reminder that the U.S. is no longer willing -- or able -- to play either world policeman or peacekeeper. Such reluctance has been all too clear in the White House's policy for Syria, where Obama refused until last month to give weapons to Syrian rebels who have been battling for more than two years to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

An estimated 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting in Syria, and Obama has been under intense pressure from some in Congress and allies abroad to give the rebels robust military aid. Instead, the White House agreed to give a tepid mix of guns, ammunition and shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades, and only did so after U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.

Other Sunni-dominated Mideast nations, most notably Qatar, have provided heavier weapons to help the rebels beat back Iranian forces and aid that is flowing to Assad's regime.

Rebel commanders have been underwhelmed by the U.S. support, saying they need enough firepower to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to stop his tanks and heavy artillery. The Free Syrian Army, which is made up of some opposition forces, also wants allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent Assad's superior air power from crushing the rebels or killing civilians.

The White House is, at best, highly reluctant to create such a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.

Even American officials say the help to Syria is not enough.

The light weapons are "clearly not only insufficient, it's insulting," Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican proponent of taking a bigger military role in Syria, said recently.

McCain and several other hawkish Republicans also have criticized Obama for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, where violence has dramatically escalated since their departure 18 months ago.

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