A Foreign Policy Flirting With Chaos
The most egregious case of fecklessness has been on Syria. Doubts about American dependability were raised far and wide.
RICHARD N. HAASS
April 29, 2014 7:24 p.m. ET
American 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 U.S., which cannot insulate itself from the world.
The concept that should inform American foreign policy is one that the Obama administration proposed in its first term: the pivot or rebalancing toward Asia, with decreasing emphasis on the Middle East. What has been missing is the commitment and discipline to implement this change in policy. President Obama’s four-country Asian tour in recent days was a start, but it hardly made up for years of paying little heed to his own professed foreign-policy goals.
This judgment may appear odd-at first glance the Obama administration does seem to have been moving away from the Middle East. U.S. combat forces are no longer in Iraq, and the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan (now below 40,000) will soon be 10,000 or fewer. Yet the administration continues to articulate ambitious political goals in the region. The default U.S. policy option 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 Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, followed by Bashar Assad in Syria.
Yet history shows that ousting leaders can be difficult, and even when it is not, it can be extremely hard to bring about a stable, alternative authority that is better for American preferences. The result is that the U.S. often finds itself with an uncomfortable choice: Either it must back off its declared goals, which makes America look weak and encourages widespread defiance, or it has to make good on its aims, which requires enormous investments in blood, treasure and time.
The Obama administration has largely opted for the former, i.e., feckless approach. The most egregious case is Syria, where the president and others declared that “Assad must go” only to do little to bring about his departure. Military support of opposition elements judged to be acceptable has been minimal. Worse, President Obama 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 damaged what little confidence and potential the non-jihadist opposition possessed. It is only a matter of time before the U.S. will likely have to swallow the bitter pill of tolerating Assad while supporting acceptable opposition elements against the jihadists.
Meanwhile, large areas of Libya are increasingly out of government control and under the authority of militias and terrorists. 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 U.S. finds itself with little influence despite a costly decade of occupation. Terrorists now have more of a foothold in the region than ever before.
None of this should be read as a call for the U.S. to do more to oust regimes, much less occupy countries in the name of nation-building. There is a good deal of evidence, including Chile, Mexico, the Philippines and South Korea, that gradual and peaceful reform of authoritarian systems is less expensive by every measure and more likely to result in an open society, as well as less likely to result in disruption and death.
The Obama administration’s extraordinary commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also difficult to justify. Even before the recent breakdown in talks, the dispute didn’t appear ripe for resolution. And it must be acknowledged that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute no longer occupies center stage in the Middle East. The emergence of a separate Palestinian state wouldn’t affect the troubling events in Syria, Egypt or Iraq.
The one vital undertaking in the Middle East that the Obama administration has pursued energetically is negotiating with Iran to place a ceiling on its nuclear capacity and potential. The administration deserves praise for ratcheting up sanctions against Iran-Tehran’s interest in a nuclear deal has increased as a result. The challenge will be to come up with an agreement that is enough for Iran and not too much for us and for Israel.
These diplomatic endeavors take time. 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. 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 the U.S. air and naval presence in the region need to become a reality.
The U.S. must also increase its involvement 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 will require targeted sanctions, 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 strength and resilience of the U.S. economy and society. This is not an alternative to national security but a central part of it. The energy boom is a major positive, but also needed are comprehensive immigration reform, infrastructure modernization, free trade and a willingness to tackle entitlements. Absent such efforts, economic growth won’t be as great as it ought to be. The opportunity will also be lost to do something about U.S. debt before it explodes, driven by surging Medicare and Social Security costs and higher interest rates.
The challenge for the Obama administration is not just to ensure American strength and continued internationalism in the face of growing isolationist sentiment. It is also a case of sending the right message to others. We are witnessing an accelerated movement toward a post-American world where governments make decisions and take actions with reduced regard for U.S. preferences. Such a world promises to be even messier, and less palatable for U.S. interests, than it is today.
Mr. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of “Foreign Policy Begins at Home” (Basic Books, 2013). This op-ed was adapted from an article in the May/June issue of the American Interest.