He's without a vision for the Middle East: President Obama decides on a case-by-case basis where and when America can afford to be idealistic and where it cannot. Syria is an example of how such pocket change policies can come back to bite. His timid approach is the reason he is often accused of weakness. Nonetheless, his words must be taken seriously.
Barack Obama often seems to be closer to the Far East than to the Near East. He once lived in Indonesia and he sees America's long term interests in that part of the world. His rebalancing, the search for a new balance between Arab nations and the Far East, is, truthfully, a departure from that inflammatory and complex situation that so often causes new conflicts in the Mediterranean and Gulf regions.
When Obama addressed the Muslims in Cairo in 2009 — the White House had originally planned for him to make that speech in Jakarta — it was intended to clear up any misunderstandings that America had something against Islam in the wake of the Bush years. It was a declaration of peace, if not of love. “We like you, bye now!” is an updated interpretation of it. To those in the region, the American president seems to be a disinterested bystander. When Secretary of State John Kerry revived the Middle East peace process recently, it almost seemed to be a hobby of his rather than a United States initiative.
Nevertheless, the region tends to monopolize the American leader's time and attention. The Arab Spring unleashed a torrent of crises that found Obama facing the same old dilemmas: Realist or idealist? Get involved or stay out of it? Take a chance or play it safe?
The US Is Exhausted
Obama has given no coherent answer. At times, he's been the idealist, demanding that long-time ally Hosni Mubarak step down and bombing Libyan dictator Gadhafi out of office. Realist George H.W. Bush did neither. His view was that Mubarak guaranteed stability and Libya represented no threat to American interests. But whereas Obama placed ideals like democracy front and center in those cases, he ignored them during the uprisings in Bahrain and Iran — and after the coup in Egypt as well.
Obama has no vision for the Middle East. The question is whether the Middle East might not be better off under those circumstances. Iraq is the latest nation to have a bad experience due to visions originating in Washington. The United States is exhausted in every respect as well. Money is running out and soldiers want to come home. Dependence on foreign oil is decreasing. The United States is losing influence. Obama wants to use what is left of his foreign policy capital as profitably as possible and he's risking every last penny on it. He decides on a case-by-case basis where America can afford to be idealistic and where it's hopeless.
Getting Maximum Gain from Limited Resources
Such penny-ante tactics have often brought Obama criticisms of weakness. It is, in fact, difficult to understand why the Israeli government — despite Obama's opposition — continues building settlements on Palestinian territory. It's also puzzling why the U.S. president hasn't more vigorously supported the democratic experiment in Egypt and that he seemingly accepts the leadership of generals in power via a military coup.
On the other hand, Obama has consistently shown that he can be cool and dispassionate with the top terrorist leadership as well as “friendly” dictators with his use of unmanned drones in Yemen and with the bombardment of Libya, even though he parceled out a good portion of that work — and cost — to the Europeans.
Syria is an example of how penny-ante politics can pay off. Obama had hoped Assad would discover his inner reformer, ignored the Syrian opposition and accepted the U.N. blockade for far too long. Obama's view is that Syria is too dangerous and too expensive a risk. But the suspected use of poison gas has changed the situation. Still, Obama should not only react on that account — because he drew that red line himself — but especially because the act was a crime against humanity affecting the entire world.
No Boots on the Ground
The reaction now shown by Washington is in harmony with Obama's logic. An intimidating attack with missiles from afar would portray the U.S. as the protector of basic, globally shared values without the attendant burden of being overly expensive and risky. But support of that image will require more than just encouraging words out of Paris or London. He also must recognize that minimal involvement will not solve the problems. But America is in no position to offer more than that: Neither Obama nor Congress is prepared to actually put military boots on Syrian soil.
Obama will be happy if his small and relatively sure bet pays off in a big way. That bet involves using unmanned drones, cruise missiles and other limited liability resources. When Obama declares he will not accept an Iran with nuclear weapons, Tehran — with its widely dispersed uranium enrichment bunkers — should take that declaration completely seriously.