Getting away with it while the world’s cop is off duty
As the world convened at the U.N. General Assembly last week, the willingness of the Obama administration to risk blood and treasure promoting democracy abroad was on full display: Barack Obama gave a stirring speech defending American values and asking other democracies to adopt them. But Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t deliver his speech until after an appearance on a daytime chat show, in obvious support of his re-election campaign.
Many foreign policy experts have criticized Obama for wasting time with Barbara and Whoopi on The View when he could’ve been engaging with foreign leaders on the East Side of Manhattan. But the experts’ takeaway from Obama’s priorities last week is no different than it has been from the administration’s response to months of civil war in Syria, the teeter-tottering of Libya, the reluctance to pose a credible military threat for Iran and the refusal to engage in the Middle East peace process.
The U.S. is willing to do less on the world stage than it has since the onset of World War Two. In the long term, this reset of foreign policy and military initiatives may yield the country a peace dividend. In the short term, there are three international issues where the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and where, in the past, a U.S. president might have intervened. Let’s look at them:
1. Syria. The Assad regime has engaged in deplorable behavior. But the U.S. has been extremely reluctant to support the opposition without a clear identity, leader or mission beyond overthrowing the regime. Furthermore, nothing about the Libya experience has given the U.S. any reason to do anything differently. It’s completely unclear that U.S. intervention in Syria would put U.S. interests in any better shape in that country, or outside of it. The Iraq lesson was simple – that democracy building is very expensive. And Libya taught us more: Regime change itself hurts and can’t be done on the cheap. Furthermore, when it came time for the U.S. to garner international support for its limited Libya mission, Russia could not ignore Gaddafi’s bombast and promise to exterminate the rebels, and therefore could not block the necessary U.N. resolution. When it comes to Syria, Russia won’t provide international cover for a U.S. intervention. Assad gets a pass, despite his brutal war and the fact that it is beginning to reach into bordering states as well. The knock-on effect is more instability in the Middle East – but that seems to be something the Obama administration has decided it can live with.
2. Iran. Here, the U.S. has actually been doing a good job eliciting international pressure on the regime over its quest for nuclear weapons. Rightly so: This is a bigger, global problem. But how much pressure can be brought to bear on Iran, given what’s going on across the region? The Obama administration can say, “Iran, you can’t develop nuclear weapons, or else,” but the question becomes, “or else, what?” Setting out a thick red line is a big problem in this environment. The U.S., according to reports, is running a rather effective sabotage operation on Iran’s labs, but Israel’s current government is apoplectic that Uncle Sam is not sending in the cavalry. Israel, here, is at great risk of appearing to cry wolf, losing the support it has in the international community should the situation in Iran become worse. And Tehran would, it seems, be more willing to declare itself at war with the U.S. to distract the Iranian public from the pain of economic sanctions.
3. Israel and Palestine. While Israel might look like a loser when it comes to Iran, it’s a winner when it comes to its own territorial dispute, no matter who wins the U.S. election in November. Mitt Romney is on the record as saying the Palestinians don’t seem to want peace. When, if ever, has a major party presidential candidate uttered a statement like that? Neither he nor Obama, in other words, intend to use any political capital on another meaningless accord. The message from U.S. politicians to Jerusalem: “We’re done trying to fix this. No more pressure on settlements, or anything else. Good luck.” Israel gets a nearly free hand to deal with Palestine, because there are enough crises in the world that set off anti-American demonstrations, and there’s little need to create another. What that means for Palestinians, though, is the end of American support for their claims, and possibly the end of restraint by Israel.
What all three situations come back to is that the foreign policy implications of the 2012 election are virtually nil. Americans are consumed by domestic issues like the economy and unemployment. Despite the fact that Romney paints Obama as an apologist, a declinist, an unpatriotic leader-from-behind, both are peddling roughly the same foreign policy. Romney is setting a theme and a tone to attack Obama, but it’s mere background music. Whichever candidate is elected will, for different reasons, tell the military “you’re not going to bomb that.” All the rest is posturing.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 25, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar