By Elise Labott, reporting from the United Nations
The drama over whether President Barack Obama would shake hands with his Iranian counterpart detracted from what diplomats at the U.N. General Assembly described as an acute disappointment with his handling of Mideast turmoil.
A perceived lack of leadership in Syria during its civil war coupled with U.S. handling of the political crisis in Egypt has forced the Obama administration to confront a growing lack of confidence among Middle East allies.
But what's most bewildered American allies in the region was Obama's abrupt decision to back away from threats to use military force over alleged Syrian chemical weapons use in favor of a diplomatic approach to divest it of those stockpiles.
They fear Obama's ambivalence foreshadows a lack of mettle in dealing with Iran.
Told earlier this month strikes against Syria were imminent, Arab states were "shocked," according to one foreign minister, when Obama announced he would seek congressional authorization for military action, which turned out to be an uphill climb that was set aside once the diplomatic option became available.
"We saw it as weak and indecisive," the minister said. "This is how this inaction is being played in the region."
In his speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, Obama projected a robust commitment to defending U.S. interests abroad and advocating for democratic principles, while declaring receptiveness to potential diplomatic openings that have emerged.
He challenged the world body to enforce its ban on chemical weapons by agreeing to crack down on Syria - even militarily - if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad fails to turn over its stockpiles to international control.
But the wider regional struggle against Iran's influence in the region serves as a backdrop for grave concerns, particularly among gulf nations, that the diplomatic push by the United States and Russia will not only embolden al-Assad, but also his close ally Iran and Hezbollah.
"It gives a lot more ammunition to the argument we can't depend on our American friends," one senior Arab diplomat said. "They look weak and outmaneuvered. And if they can't make up their mind on Syria, how will they be able to stay firm on Iran? I think American credibility has suffered a serious setback."
Attention to Syria and a tentative rapprochement with Tehran on its nuclear program have taken some pressure off the administration regarding the political conflict in Egypt.
After wavering on whether to call the July 3 ouster of President Mohammed Morsy a coup, the White House and State Department have treaded cautiously as the military led interim government continues its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although Obama's top national security advisers have recommended he suspend $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt until democracy is restored, the White House has indicated such a move would not be in the U.S. interest.
U.S. allies in the gulf, supportive of the new interim government, also have been critical of Washington's attitude toward Cairo.
Obama's U.N. speech failed to convince leaders that he has a coherent strategy to deal with the myriad of crises in the region.
While he spoke at length about the conflict in Syria and political turmoil in Egypt, the president reframed U.S. foreign policy priorities by focusing immediate attention on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama is acutely aware of criticism about his policies and is even frustrated by it. At the United Nations, he raised what he called "a contradiction that has persisted in the region for decades."
"The United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy," he said. "At the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region's problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations."
But another Arab foreign minister lamented this "on the one hand, on the other hand" is reflective of an administration with neither a clear cut approach to the region, nor the determination to implement it.
"The president's speech explains why nobody counts on U.S. leadership anymore," the minister said. "It was an academic, scholarly examination of the problems and all of the arguments involved. He should pick one and stick with it."
The improvisational nature of Obama's policy decisions, and his inability to explain them to allies, has brought more than one comparison to President George W. Bush.
Five years after leaving office, Obama's predecessor still draws fire for his policies in Iraq, but now earns points for his plain-spoken manner.
"I have to tell you, I miss President Bush," another senior Arab diplomat said. "I disagreed with almost every political decision he made. But I knew where he stood and what his views are. He told us personally and he told the world at the U.N. General Assembly. We could disagree and move on with it. With Obama not only don't I know, I just don't understand."