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.