Lowered Expectations As Foreign Policy Doctrine

Anticipating an even less cooperative U.S. Congress after today, former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller warns President Obama against going big on foreign policy:

Obama’s real problem is this: Unlike Wilson and other consequential foreign-policy presidents, he lacks ready-made or even easily manufactured opportunities abroad. The world the president inherited, at least in the Middle East and South Asia, isn’t defined by the promise of stunningly conclusive U.S. military victories or decisive conflict-ending agreements; instead of black and white, the United States confronts the world of gray — extractive and corrupt allies, determined and often undefined enemies, asymmetrical conflicts, and failed or failing states. There are no heroes, breakthroughs, or definitive outcomes to much of anything here. […]

If he’s smart on this one (and I think he is), the president will keep his head, his rhetoric, and his ambitions small. He isn’t going to find much solace and refuge in the world of Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Hamas and Hezbollah. He can’t (and won’t) withdraw from this world, but he now also knows he can’t remake it either. Gone are the transformational ambitions of nation-building, grand bargains, and comprehensive peace. What’s left are more in the way of downsized transactions: managing, not resolving conflict; contracting, not expanding the U.S. role in them; and just plain getting by, or in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, getting out.

“The United States confronts the world of gray” not characterized by “definitive outcomes” — when wasn’t it ever thus? The idea that the world is neatly divided into a Good team and a Bad team, and that the United States has some kind of supernatural power to determine final outcomes between them, was a key misconception of the Bush administration, which led it to throw the ultimate foreign policy “hail Mary” pass — the invasion of Iraq. The lion’s share of President Obama’s foreign policy these last two years has been dedicated to regaining lost yardage — keeping the Iraq withdrawal on track, bringing some measure of clarity to the Afghanistan mission, and fashioning what is probably the first actual comprehensive U.S.-Iran policy since the Islamic revolution.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Miller’s call for us to lower our foreign policy expectations, I actually find it refreshing, but I’m not sure if it’s wise for the president to dial down his agenda across the board. While a responsible progressive foreign policy approach is one that recognizes the U.S.’s unique leadership role while being realistic about what U.S. power and influence can actually achieve, the fact is that Obama has to deal with reality as he finds it, and the reality in the Middle East is a deteriorating status quo in Israel-Palestine, with Israel ever more deeply embedding itself in the West Bank, the Palestinians increasingly divided and its leadership losing credibility, and the de facto one-state solution standing on the verge of getting de jure. It’s understandable that, having dedicated so much of his career to a thus far failed enterprise, Miller is deeply pessimistic about what is possible, but the idea that we can just shelve the peace process for now and come back to it later is actually the least realistic option.

That aside, I agree that the thing isn’t for Obama to go for big wins, at least not within the creaking and ultimately unsustainable current framework of U.S. power in the Middle East. One of his goals should be to fundamentally rethink that framework. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East — I don’t think that’s either realistic or desirable — but I would like to see us begin to critically examine the security architecture within which the U.S. operates there. Do the alliances we’ve created with authoritarian and intransigent Middle East governments really make sense anymore? Is there an alternative to another few decades of just reacting to and managing various crises as they arise? Is there a way for the U.S. to exert influence and exercise leadership that doesn’t mainly involve stationing troops all over the place? Focusing his administration, and, by extension, the larger foreign policy establishment, on these questions is one of the best things Obama could do, and he doesn’t need Joe Lieberman or John Boehner’s permission to do it.