Monday, March 14, 2016

An Arc of Disenchantment

"The story of Obama's encounter with the Middle East follows an arc of disenchantment." 

So writes Jeffrey Goldberg in a lengthy article in the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic, "The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. President talks through his hardest decisions about America's role in the world." It's a long article (72 pages), but well worth the effort to read - and not just as an alternative to the popular sloganeering that dominates this presidential campaign and that substitutes for reasoned discourse about foreign policy so much of the time. Goldberg is a serious analyst. And his subject, the President, is a sophisticated and nuanced thinker about foreign policy, whose evolving reasoning about foreign affairs in general and the Middle East in particular Goldberg illuminates with appreciative clarity.

Goldberg starts from the President's fateful decision in the late summer of 2013 not to follow through on the threat implied in the President's previous rhetoric about a "red line" which Syria dare not cross, but which Asad then did cross. For some, Obama's inaction "brought to a premature end America's reign as the world's sole indispensable superpower." For others, the President had "peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void."

It is, of course, in the very nature of such issues that we won't really know for some time which interpretation is right, or whether both are right in part and wrong in part. Personally, I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that those who opposed attacking Syria to enforce that infamous "red line" (the UK House of Commons and the US Congress, among many others) must bear some share of responsibility for the continuance and escalation of the conflict and the terrible refugee crisis that conflict has created. (For that matter, so must those who enthusiastically cheered on the so-called "Arab Spring," which inexorably helped set this whole process in motion.) On the other hand, we can have little confidence that military intervention in 2013 would necessarily have accomplished its intended purpose, or that it would not - like Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 - have unintentionally produced a possibly even worse outcome. Hence the continued plausibility of both interpretations of Obama's action.

The particular merit of Goldberg's article - based on multiple interviews with the President - is to illuminate how his thinking has evolved with the events and how it has helped him break free from what Goldberg calls "the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America's frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East" (e.g., Saudi Arabia) - and "to distinguish the merely urgent from the truly important, and to focus on the important."

For me what was particularly revealing is how the president has come to combine a strong conviction that U.S. leadership is essential in international affairs - "if we don't set the agenda, it doesn't happen" - with a realistic recognition - Goldberg calls it "fatalistic" - of the limitations of American power given the larger forces (e.g., "tribalism") that constrain American ability abroad. In light of the current campaign discourse, it is also noteworthy how, on the one hand, Obama is sensitive to and perturbed by the perennial problem of allies who are essentially "free riders" not taking sufficient responsibility, while, on the other hand, he still views multilateralism as essential, in part because of his belief "that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America's more unruly impulses."

Goldberg also unpacks Obama's growing perspective (which I am increasingly convinced is correct) that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer so central to the Middle East and that the Middle East itself is less central to American interests. (And, even if it were more important, there is little the US can really do to solve its sectarian dysfunctions.) I think Obama's diagnosis is fundamentally on target that our "desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power."

As for whether his preoccupation with Asia is, in fact, the essential engagement with the future that Obama apparently believes it is, regarding that too time will tell. 

The challenge for the next President and her/his foreign policy team will be to remain not just the sole superpower but the indispensable party to any progress on almost any front on almost any issue, while at the same time recalibrating the reigning foreign policy playbook in ways which more realistically recognize the difference between "the merely urgent" and "the truly important." Part of that will almost certainly include a diminished preoccupation with the Middle East and its irresolvable conflicts.

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