A surfeit of modesty

Reuters

US President Barack Obama meets with his national security staff to discuss the situation in Syria in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, in this photo taken August 30, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Obama's retreat into virtue has become distinguishing feature of president's natsec policy

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  • White House in no mood to reassess its Middle East strategy unless it is to accelerate pace of retreat

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  • With Clinton, Gates, Petraeus out, Obama has all but eliminated dissenting opinions

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Whether it’s “pivoting” or “rebalancing,” the Obama administration’s unceasing efforts to turn retreat into a virtue – particularly when it comes to the Middle East – have become a distinguishing feature of this president’s national security strategy.

The New York Times’ weekend account of its interview with Susan Rice, wherein the national security adviser spins the Syria fiasco as a kind of “midcourse correction,” marks a new chapter in the leading-from-the-rear saga. In elaborating on the president’s recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Rice explained that the administration “can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is. [President Obama] thought it was a good time to step back and reassess, in a very critical and kind of no-holds-barred way, how we conceive the region.”

In fact, the White House is in no mood to “reassess” its Middle East strategy, unless that means to accelerate the pace of retreat.  The direction of Obama strategy has been remarkably consistent, even to the point of poisoning his Afghanistan “surge” by setting a deadline for withdrawal. Even Times reporter Mark Lander acknowledged that this “more modest approach…raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force” to pursue what have long been understood as U.S. interests in the Middle East.  A fair enough question, since Susan Rice, who pushed for intervention in Libya, is supposed to be one of the more hawkish in Obama’s inner circle.  

But it’s clear that the president wants a very tight “inner circle” of security advisers, and to drive even that process. It’s been noted that no one outside the White House participated in this most recent “midcourse correction.”  Certainly not Secretary of State John Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.  With Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and David Petraeus out of the way, the president has all but eliminated any dissenting viewpoints.  Everyone’s now on board with the more modest approach.

But what is most striking about the Obama approach is its failure to understand the global nature of American power.  The United States does not really have the luxury of “pivoting” away from unpleasant but essential elements of international balance of power, and the Middle East, for all its problems, is unquestionably one of those essential elements.  Obama’s attempt to “reconceive” America’s role in the Middle East is, inevitably, a measure that will unbalance the international system.

Alas, the Times article, and the diplomatic press corps in general, is content simply to chart the twists and turns of current administration policy.  To compare Obama today to Obama yesterday is to miss the main point.  The correct comparison is to his predecessors since 1945, and to see that Obama is rapidly dismantling what’s been built since then.

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