U.S. foreign policy is in troubling disarray. The result is unwelcome news for the world, which largely depends upon the United States to promote order in the absence of any other country able and willing to do so. And it is bad for the United States, which cannot insulate itself from developments beyond its borders.
If success has many fathers, it turns out that so, too, does disarray. The Administration of George W. Bush overreached in Iraq and (along with the Federal Reserve Board and Congress) under-regulated the financial sector in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Congress should also be held accountable for the sequester (which makes no distinction between investment and spending), the government shutdown, the near-default on the debt, and repeated failures to reform the immigration system, modernize infrastructure, or reform long-term entitlement obligations. All of this has weakened the economic strength of the United States and exacted a serious toll on its reputation for reliability and competence.
Still, the Obama Administration cannot escape its share of the responsibility for what has gone wrong. As was the case with its predecessor and Congress, the shortcomings are mostly self-inflicted. What is curious about the Obama Administration’s troubles is that they are inconsistent with its own professed approach to the world. A concept exists—one developed and promulgated by the Obama Administration in its first term—that provides a useful compass for what the United States should do in the world. What is missing is the commitment and discipline to ensure that implementation of foreign policy is consistent with this compass.
The concept that should inform American foreign policy is the pivot or rebalancing—that is, the notion that the United States should decrease its emphasis on the Middle East and instead focus more on Asia. The change is warranted by the fact that the United States has enormous interests in the Asia-Pacific region, which is home to many of the countries likely to dominate the current century. It is also an area where the United States can count numerous formal obligations. The worrisome news is that the region’s stability is increasingly uncertain; the reassuring news is that the United States possesses the tools (be they diplomatic, economic, or military) to advance and defend its interests there.
The Middle East, for its part, is much less likely to define the world’s future, given the absence of a major power presence. What is more, the instruments of American foreign policy tend not to be effective if the goal is to remake local political systems. The United States is much better positioned to shape the policies of governments beyond their borders than it is their behavior within them.
So if the strategy is good, what is the problem? It is this: If, as Woody Allen says, 80 percent of life is showing up, then 80 percent of foreign policy is implementation. No design, no matter how good, is better than what is carried out in its name. The problem is not with the pivot or the rebalance; it is with a foreign policy that pays it little heed.
This judgment may appear odd, as at first glance the Obama Administration seems to be moving away from the Middle East. There are no longer any U.S. combat forces in Iraq, and the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan (now below 40,000) will before long be reduced to 10,000 or fewer. Elsewhere in the region, the Obama Administration confined itself to leading from behind in Libya, avoiding following up the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi with “boots on the ground.” It has largely remained aloof from the war in Syria, declining to provide much in the way of arms to the “moderate” opposition and backing away from a direct use of military force, even though the Assad government defied a U.S. “red line” by using chemical weapons on several occasions.
There is a problem, however. While the Administration is doing less in the region militarily, it continues to articulate ambitious goals politically. The default option for the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East seems to be regime change, consisting of repeated calls for authoritarian leaders to leave power. First it was Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, then Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, followed by Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Yet history shows time and time again that it can be difficult to oust a leader, and even when it is not, it can be extremely difficult to help bring about a stable, alternative authority that is better in terms of American preferences. The result is that the United States often finds itself with an uncomfortable choice: Either it must back off its declared goals, which makes it look feckless and encourages widespread defiance, or it has to make good on its aims, which would require enormous investments in blood, treasure, and time rarely justified by the interests or results.
The Obama Administration, wary of anything that would lead to a long-term, large-scale deployment on the scale of either Iraq or Afghanistan, has largely opted for the former. The most egregious case has been Syria, where the President and others declared that “Assad must go” only to do little to bring about his departure. Military support of those opposition elements judged to be acceptable has been minimal. Worse yet, the President avoided using force in the wake of clear chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, a decision that raised doubts far and wide about American dependability and that damaged what little confidence and potential the non-jihadi opposition possessed. The result is that Assad has not gone and the principal opposition is worse, from an American perspective; it is only a matter of time before the United States will likely have to swallow the bitter pill of tolerating Assad while supporting acceptable opposition elements against the jihadis. Negotiating efforts that ignore realities on the ground will continue to bear little if any fruit.
Meanwhile, large areas within Libya are increasingly out of government control and under the authority of militias and terrorists. In Egypt the United States alienated both supporters of a secular society (by calling for Hosni Mubarak’s departure and pressing for early elections) and those of the Muslim Brotherhood (by refusing to describe the ouster of the government of Mohamed Morsi in late June 2013 as a coup and accepting the result). Today’s Egypt is polarized and characterized by mounting violence. Much the same is true in Iraq, now the second-most turbulent country in the region, where the United States now finds itself with little influence despite a costly decade of occupation. Terrorists now have more of a foothold in the region than ever before. Jordan risks being overwhelmed by refugees; only Tunisia seems better off, although even this is in some doubt.
Just to be clear, none of this should be read as a call for the United States to do more to oust regimes, much less occupy countries in the name of nation-building. To the contrary, it can be costly to oust regimes (Syria being the prime example) and even costlier (and, at times, impossible) to put something sufficiently better in its place to justify those costs. Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya all come to mind here. There is as well a good deal of evidence that gradual and peaceful reform of authoritarian systems is not only less expensive by every measure and more likely to result in an open society, but also less likely to result in disruption and death. The push for regime change has brought about “cures” worse than the disease; to extend the medical metaphor, the United States would have been wiser to observe the Hippocratic Oath and, first, do no harm.
The extraordinary commitment being made to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also difficult to justify. The dispute does not appear ripe for resolution, and even if a framework is established, it is anything but certain that it would be translated into an actual agreement. And even if this assessment proves wrong, it needs to be acknowledged that the Israel-Palestinian dispute no longer occupies center stage in the Middle East. The emergence of a separate Palestinian state would not affect the dynamics of what is taking place in Syria or Egypt or Iraq. It would be important and desirable for both Israelis and Palestinians, but it has become more a local than a regional dispute.
The one vital undertaking in the Middle East that the Obama Administration has pursued energetically is the effort to negotiate a pact with Iran that would place a ceiling on its nuclear capacity and potential. The Obama Administration deserves praise for all it did to ratchet up sanctions against Iran. Iran’s interest in a nuclear deal has gone up as a result; the challenge will be to come up with a package that is enough for Iran and not too much for us and for Israel. It is a difficult but worthwhile pursuit, as a diplomatic settlement is far preferable to an Iran possessing nuclear weapons or to mounting an attack to prevent such an outcome.
All these diplomatic endeavors take time, however. A Secretary of State can only do so much; time spent in Jerusalem and Geneva is time not spent in Tokyo and Beijing. And there is much that could be done in Asia. Regular consultations are warranted with the principal powers of the region, including China, Japan, and South Korea. Both crisis prevention and crisis management need to figure prominently in a region characterized by growing nationalism and rivalry and few diplomatic channels or institutions; so, too, does planning for a transition to a unified Korean Peninsula. Long-promised increases in U.S. air and naval presence in the region need to become a reality.
Unfortunately, no senior official in the Administration has yet made this set of issues a sufficient second term priority. The one official who has done so is U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. The progress on negotiating a regional trade pact is welcome on economic and strategic grounds alike; still, an energetic trade policy is no substitute for a broader strategic undertaking.
The United States also will want to increase its involvement in and with Europe. American inattention, combined with Ukraine’s own political dysfunction and the European Union’s bungling, set the stage for Russian expansion into Crimea. Shaping Russian behavior henceforth will require sustained diplomacy across the Atlantic, greater allocation of economic resources to Ukraine, a willingness to export meaningful amounts of oil and natural gas, and a renewed commitment to NATO’s military readiness.
The Administration also needs to focus on the home front and the strength and resilience of the economy and society. This is not an alternative to national security, but rather a central part of it. The energy boom is a major positive development, but also needed is comprehensive immigration reform, infrastructure modernization, and a willingness to tackle entitlements. Absent such efforts, economic growth, while it will proceed, will not be as great as it could be or needs to be; just as important, the opportunity will be lost to do something about the debt before it explodes owing to surging Medicare and Social Security costs and higher interest rates.
But it is not just a matter of ensuring American strength and continued internationalism in the face of growing isolationist sentiment. It is also a case of sending the right message to others. Foreign and domestic policy developments over the past decade have raised questions about American competence and reliability. Revelations about NSA activities that signaled to many friends and allies that they are not treated all that differently from adversaries exacerbated such problems. The result is accelerated movement in the direction of a post-American world in which a growing number of decisions are made and actions taken with reduced regard for U.S. preferences and interests. Such a world promises to be messier and less supportive of American interests.