In President Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, he made the case for sustained American engagement in the Middle East:
“The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe that would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it.”
When we look at Obama’s speech, the two biggest trends in American foreign policy are conspicuous by their absence. First, while Obama describes the need for sustained American engagement in the Middle East, the opposite is already on full display today — and Obama has contributed to this disengagement at almost every turn. In the 2012 election, only 5 percent of voters dubbed foreign policy as their priority. You needn’t look further than Obama’s decision to punt on Syria strikes in the face of withering domestic support. The failed G20 summit in St. Petersburg made it painfully clear that “a vacuum of leadership” is already the reality in our G-Zero world. The United States’ ability and leverage to drive outcomes in the Middle East is increasingly limited.
Second, the United States’ interest in redirecting that leverage from the Middle East towards Asia was nowhere to be found in the speech. Obama’s address was completely at odds with broader U.S. foreign policy as outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama’s first term. The Hillary Doctrine involved a pivot to Asia, with an emphasis on engagement with China and its neighbors, as well as a push for economic statecraft: the utilization of economic policy to drive political outcomes. At the U.N., all of this was swept under the rug. Obama issued a clarion call for the global community to engage on the deepest Middle East security issues, discussing Iran at length (25 mentions), as well as Syria and its civil war (20) and the conflict between Israel and Palestine (15 and 11, respectively). Meanwhile, China was only mentioned once — and that was with regard to Iran — and no other East Asian nation was mentioned at all.
For as long as Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, her Asia-oriented doctrine filled the vacuum of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama adopting her doctrine was the closest he has yet come to establishing one of his own.