Obama the super realist? How Obama's dithering might actually form the basis for a new Grand Strategy for American power in relative decline

Source: Obama White House Archives

Many, including myself, have accused US President Barack Obama of dithering in foreign affairs to the detriment of American deterrence, security, and influence on those affairs. Seen in another way, though, his policies could begin to form the basis for a strategy of the US picking its battles as its "unipolar moment" subsides.

The media are full of pundits from both left and right accusing Barack Obama of dithering—to the great detriment of US security, global human rights and democracy, and even world order itself. I have also jumped on this bandwagon. At the same time, it is not hard to see why Obama has hesitated in the face of multiple unpalatable options and a lack of US voter support for further "adventures" in the Middle East. (To get a better understanding, I highly recommend PBS Frontine's documentary Obama at War.) Obama's foreign policy team is reported to focus above all on being "smart". What if we take that at face value and assume their apparent lack of a plan is actually brilliance. What could that mean?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has enjoyed overwhelming military and economic superiority. Even as the US has rivals in economic size (though it is still ahead in global innovation and dominates the global financial and monetary system now more than ever), its military might is as yet unchallenged. In terms used by international relations people, the world has been "unipolar" for more than two decades now. From the beginning, though, this has been called America's unipolar "moment": It was never expected to last, as other countries would scramble to rival the US's unchecked power by balancing against it or beefing up their own military might. China is certainly doing this and Russia is keen to show it has not disappeared from the world stage.

Though US supremacy remains for now, it seems all but certain that this will not always be the case. China's challenging of the status quo (and of the territorial claims of several of its neighbors) is, after all, the main reason for the Obama administration's "re-balancing" towards Asia. It is an attempt to focus on an area where there is currently a great degree of stability (and lots of US allies), but where that stability is at risk. As a consequence, the hope was to re-balance away (read extricate the US) from the Middle East and its constant and complex conflicts.

It's an understandable goal. The US's actions in the Middle East in the last decade and a half seem to have brought only more trouble. The US can't be everywhere, and over the long term, China is a bigger strategic worry. The problem is that withdrawing from the Middle East has caused a power and leadership vacuum there. Obama did not advise Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki on how to govern Iraq or encourage him to be more inclusive, as George Bush, who was close with Maliki, might have. He also pulled US troops out without a serious attempt to negotiate the necessary immunity with the Iraqi Government to allow them to stay. Maliki's partisanship and his and Obama's desire for the departure of US troops have allowed the rise of Islamic State. If withdrawing creates a power vacuum, something else must fill it. The hope was likely that the current local governments would be up to this task, but they weren't. So what might be?

Obama has shown at least a limited commitment to Iraq and, with some help, Islamic State will likely be kept from threatening Baghdad. The US also announced yesterday that it would keep troops in Afghanistan longer than it initially wanted, as the security situation there has recently worsened and a complete withdraw could allow the Taliban to retake control or lead to some other strife. On Syria, however, Obama has refused to take the lead. Syria has never been a US ally; it has been within the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah axis instead. The problem is that Islamic State cannot be defeated unless it is defeated in both Iraq and Sryia and the window for the US to influence things in Syria with rebels sympathetic to it and to liberal values has closed.

Obama's moves now remind me a bit of the division of the world during the Cold War. Syria is more in Russia's sphere of influence than America's. If reducing American involvement in the Middle East is now seen as more strategically important than being able to influence events there, then letting others take on a greater role in filling the power vacuum is a possible course of action. During the Cold War, the US allowed the Soviet Union to be the main power in Eastern Europe and the US did not interfere. This was obviously not because the US agreed with the USSR but because it picked its battles.

If Russia succeeds in re-instating Assad or parts of his regime, restoring stability, and beating back Islamic State, this may seem an acceptable outcome—despite the hundreds of thousands Assad has killed—to the Obama administration that requires little US involvement. If Russia gets caught in a quagmire, Obama will feel vindicated in not getting involved and this will further weaken Russia, to the benefit of Ukraine and the West's influence in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Either way, Obama would be reducing the US footprint in the Middle East to focus on potential crises in the Far East.

I have not changed my position on this and this course of action is full of risks. As I've pointed out previously, a lack of commitment to punishing the use of chemical weapons or the indiscriminate killing of civilians has damaged US credibility, which may hurt it in the future when it hopes that making threats will be enough to discourage aggression or encourage compliance. The result could be the need to use force rather than only threatening to do so. This is not a recipe for peace and stability. Furthermore, Russia stuck in a quagmire in Syria would only destabilize the region further. US containment of IS and assistance for Syria's neighbors might instead have to increase, sucking the US back in.

Nevertheless, the US and the West face hard questions about priorities and how to secure them in an emerging bi- or multipolar world. On a generous reading, the Obama team might be the first actually to begin tackling them. That's nothing to sneeze at.


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