The Obama administration’s startling new admission that it can’t control events in the Middle East—that, as The New York Times reports, some things in the region “[lie] outside its reach” and that it is adopting a “more modest strategy” for the region—and that it is scaling back its mission is a stunning one. But it’s insufficient, and there’s lots more to do to extricate the United States from a regional crisis that it has helped to create itself—by invading Iraq, backing Israel’s ultra-right government, choosing to confront Iran and fomenting civil war in Syria.
The good news, however, is it appears that the White House has decided to formally eschew the aggressive, George W. Bush–style pursuit of regional democracy and to end, once and for all, the Bush-era policy of unilateral war-making in the Middle East. There’s reason to question the truth of this policy reversal, however, since President Obama’s questionable decision to pummel Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles and other munitions certainly falls into the category of unilateral war-making, even though it was never carried out. Nevertheless, read on.
Last summer, we now know—thanks to a revealing, must-read story in The New York Times, clearly leaked by administration officials seeking to buff the Obama administration’s standing—that inside the White House Susan Rice, the national security adviser, orchestrated a secret, White House–only review of Middle East policy. “It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House,” reported the Times, and it was designed to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda.” Reported the paper:
The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism—eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest.
The Times account added:
Scrawling ideas on a whiteboard and papering the walls of her office with notes, Ms. Rice’s team asked the most basic questions: What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?
The answer was a more modest approach—one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.
Rather than do everything, the Rice-orchestrated policy in the Middle East will focus on Israel-Palestine talks, diplomacy with Iran and dealing with Syria’s civil war. (In other words, let Iraq fester, don’t both trying to fix Egypt’s violent mess, and so on.)