Now, finally, if I’m right to argue that President Obama has instincts and intuitions, but no ambitious grand strategy for the Middle East, does he have anything more definite in mind that places the Middle East into a more expansive global framework? I promised you I’d answer this question, and so I will.
The answer is the same: The President is not a man, I think, who trusts formal strategy exercises, but he’s not a completely distracted case-by-case guy either. He probably believes that, indeed, the United States is overinvested in the Middle East and underinvested in Asia. Hence the pivot, and never mind the botching of the idea’s presentation as an either/or proposition. For all I know he once asked himself what’s the worst case in the Middle East? What if everything goes wrong? How would that really affect vital American interests? Not traditional commitments, not reputational capital, not obligations that flow from habit instead of fresh thought—but genuine vital interests? And for all I know, his answer was that, short of a WMD proliferation chain-reaction, not much.
Again, I’m skeptical that Obama consciously deploys any explicit or formal strategic logic here, or accepts any academic theories of benign realism or natural balancing. But I think he senses that the world is a messier place generally after the relative stasis of the Cold War, and that the degree of control one can get over any major issue area through traditional state-to-state relations has declined as popular and populist mobilizations, aided by new cyber-technologies, have grown on both sub-state and trans-state levels. Certainly the Middle East is a lot messier, even if much of the rest of the world isn’t (yet).
In my estimation, this intuition has made President Obama generally more risk averse, and risk averse in an area where he is in any case short on experience and, privately, confidence. When his advisers are divided, he has been noticeably uneasy. Like a judge, he has tried to find the common ground among them, which is fine for community activist work but not necessarily for making foreign policy. When his advisers engage in groupthink, as they have done more and more with Gates and Donilon gone, or when no one strenuously objects to something (like Kerry’s whimsical pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace), he’s content to engage in image management—the twitterization of U.S. foreign policy, so to speak—because he knows he can’t just ignore all these things.
The President’s sensitivity to limits also tends to make policy reactive and its real goals modest. So in the mess that is the Middle East today he wants Iraq to be governed more inclusively. He wants Syria and Libya to be governed, period. He wants Egypt to be stable, and he’s not too picky about how. He wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons, and he’s willing to bend a lot to prevent it via diplomacy because he probably thinks that Iranian leaders cannot exert their will beyond their borders with any more consistent success these days than we can.
The one subject on which he seem to have a definite view and is willing to act preemptively has to do with preventing terrorist attacks that kill American civilians, especially on U.S. soil. That explains his affection for drone attacks, his toleration for GITMO, his refusal to emasculate NSA collection programs except at a small margin, and his unstinting support for quietly creating small but powerful special-forces bases far and wide.
Taken together, this is neither appeasement nor isolationism. It’s obviously not strategic maximalism either. It’s something in between, and in that in-between space, suspended between expectations inherited from the past and hesitations generated by a fuzzy future, things sometimes get weird or uncomfortable in the face of an unprecedented avalanche of decision points. Weird like Geneva II.