America’s Incremental Withdrawal

The U.S. no longer intends to be the sole peacekeeper in the Near and Middle East. Europe will have to assume more responsibility in its own neighborhood.

The Cubans welcomed Barack Obama with enthusiastic cheers, and approval of his historic journey was also great – if not unanimous – on the home front. The president is poised to conquer one of the last Cold War front lines, the second major success for Obama along with the nuclear agreement with Iran. He has thus defused two seemingly endless battles, one lasting 57 years and the other 37. Not a bad score sheet for Obama.

And yet, the conventional wisdom in Washington’s foreign policy establishment is that Obama has weakened America’s global position, that the superpower has lost respect and influence. Wasn’t Obama just shown up by Vladimir Putin in Syria? Didn’t Putin teach his U.S. counterpart how a real superpower advances its interests confidently and effectively?

Obama’s own opinion is, not surprisingly, totally different. He laid it out in extended talks with Jeffrey Goldberg reported in a fascinating article titled “The Obama Doctrine” in Atlantic Magazine.

The day generally considered to be Obama’s biggest defeat was the day he decided against engaging militarily in Syria despite the fact that Bashar Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line” by using poison gas against the opposition. Simultaneously, it was also the day of his liberation: The day he no longer had to follow the “Washington script.”

Obama told Goldberg, “I’m very proud of that moment,” when he shuffled off the “overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus.” The “Washington script” required a military response, but Obama refused to consider sending American troops into another Middle East war. After the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, he would go to war only if U.S. national security were existentially threatened.

Criticism for Those ‘Freeloaders’ Sarkozy and Cameron

In his estimation, the situation in Syria didn’t fit that description. Neither was that the case in Libya where he was misled by the British and French into taking up a burden they neither wanted nor were capable of carrying. Sarkozy and Cameron, in Obama’s estimation, were freeloaders posturing like a superpower but who would later abandon Libya. Obama doesn’t want to get into such a position again and therefore hesitates whenever the subject of military intervention arises.

But can the superpower that called the regulatory policy shots in the region for decades withdraw without causing even greater damage? Complaints will come from all sides about the vacuum Obama created in the Middle East now being callously filled by Putin.

Kenneth M. Pollack, Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution agrees with that sentiment, recently writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, “No matter how many times Americans insist that the people of the Middle East will come to their senses and resolve their differences if left to their own devices, they never do. Absent external involvement, the region’s leaders consistently opt for strategies that exacerbate conflict and feed perpetual instability.”

Asia, Continent of the Future

America as the indispensable enforcer of order: Obama has never bought into that concept. He doesn’t want America’s focus to be primarily on the Near and Middle East. For him, Asia is the continent of the future and that is where he thinks the U.S. should be directing its attention rather than on the unsolvable conflicts in the Arab world.

Obama’s term ends in less than a year. The questions he must ask now must increasingly address who his successor should be. And as much noise as is being made about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s chances of moving into the White House are probably better than his. That’s why it’s interesting to hear what’s being said about them. They’re not that different from one another. We’re told the USA won’t be engaging in new wars, especially not if they involve “failed states.”

We Will Always Have a Middle East Neighbor

The word in Hillary Clinton’s circle is that Obama certainly hasn’t reduced America’s global role; it has only made corrections to America’s over-extension. Obama and his possible successor both agree that Europe must take on a greater share of responsibility for the West.

This discussion inevitably comes back to Europe’s doorstep, not only because the violence in the Near and Middle East is one of the principle reasons for the ongoing refugee crisis, but also because Europe is increasingly the stage on which the violence plays out. The terror that struck Paris and Brussels may reach Berlin tomorrow. Our security is directly threatened and that’s why it cannot be European policy to rely on America to keep the peace. Our future may also lie in Asia but the Middle East will still be our neighbor a thousand years from now.

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