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While Others Panic, Obama Keeps Calm and Carries On

Critics fault him for not solving every crisis in the world.

Barack Obama Angela Merkel François Hollande Matteo Renzi
American president Barack Obama speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders at the G7 summit in Bavaria, June 11 (Bundesregierung)

The dramatic terrorist attacks in France earlier this month and the ongoing upheaval in Iraq and Syria have America’s Republicans up in arms about the state of the world.

Islamists “declared war on Western civilization” when they killed more than 130 people in Paris, said Jeb Bush, the brother of Barack Obama’s predecessor and now a presidential candidate himself. He alleges that the Democrat has let America’s military might “decay.”

Marco Rubio, another presidential candidate, agrees. “The world has never been more dangerous,” he says. As for the terrorists: “Either they win, or we do.”

Their doom and gloom is echoed by conservative commentators and columnists who are having a hard time letting go of the Middle East.

Yet that is exactly what Obama is trying to do.


“He thinks the United States is overinvested in the Middle East and underinvested in Asia,” wrote The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle last month.

Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, both former White House officials for the Middle East, agree.

They argue in Foreign Affairs magazine that a growing independence from Middle Eastern oil, the region’s perennial economic and political dysfunction as well as the waning influence of groups that were once reliable bastions of pro-Western sentiment — national militaries, petroleum elites and secular technocrats — have made the region less vital to American security and prosperity.

What the United States should do, they argue, is “offshore balancing”: refrain from large military operations like the war in Iraq and forego quasi-imperial nationbuilding to focus on selectively using American leverage to exert influence and protect the country’s interests.

Garfinkle agrees this is the strategy Obama is sold on. But he recognizes it is shift in policy from the previous administration, one that will not come about easily.


Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, has argued that Obama’s overriding strategic objective — rightly, he believes — is sustaining the liberal world order America has built since the end of World War II.

The president acknowledged in 2010 that United States have “created webs of commerce, supported an international architecture of laws and institutions and spilled American blood in foreign lands, not to build an empire, but to shape a world in which more individuals and nations could determine their own destiny and live with the peace and dignity they deserve.” Preserving that world, he argued, called for “a strategy that rebuilds the foundation of American strength and influence.”

Or, as Rose puts it: “distinguishing between wants and needs and letting some issues and areas slip to the back burner.”

Although Russia tested the liberal world order when it invaded Ukraine last year and annexed the Crimean Peninsula away from its former satellite state, its future will more likely be decided in Asia.

There, America seeks a coalition of likeminded nations, stretching from Japan and South Korea in the north to Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines in the south, to prevent China — due to overtake the United States as the world’s single largest economy — from writing its own, presumably far less liberal rules for the conduct of states.

“Managing the rise of China is a structural concern,” according to Garfinkle.

Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, eurozone distempers and all the other headline soaks that pop into view from time to time are no longer vital interests and only by “leading from behind” or not leading at all will responsible governments come to own up to their own security obligations.

The hard part is convincing other countries to do so.

Empowering middle powers

In Asia, Obama wants India and Japan to step up to the plate. The latter — still the world’s third economy — is remilitarizing in response to Chinese challenges in the East and South China Seas. It is also critical to the success of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade zone of twelve countries in East Asia and the Americas that would govern 40 percent of the world’s economic activity. Six more countries are interested in joining, leaving China with little choice but to play by the same rules once it comes into force.

India still has to shake off a history of nonalignment, but it shares its neighbors’ concerns about an overly assertive China.

In Europe, Obama has deliberately taken a backseat to the Ukraine crisis to convince his NATO allies they need to look after their own security more. That, too, is starting to bear fruit. Germany, historically reluctant to throw its weight around, is growing more comfortable leading again — so long as it doesn’t involve anything to do with the military (that’s what France and the United Kingdom are for). Poland seeks to lead a more confident Central Europe that is no longer beholden to the whims of great powers in the east or the west. Traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden have stepped up defense cooperation in the Baltic Sea region and Scandinavia.

In the Middle East, geopolitical and sectarian rivalries work against the emergence of a benign regional hegemon like Germany. But middle powers like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey can balance each other and keep the peace in much the same way the Concert of Europe did on the old continent in the nineteenth century.

Simon and Stevenson argue this would be a return to normalcy, not a radical break with American policy.

Up until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States didn’t need a forward-leaning policy in the Middle East, they write, because its interests largely coincided with those of its allies and partners there.

The United States and the Gulf Arab states shared a paramount need to maintain stable oil supplies and prices and, more broadly, political stability.

That is still broadly true. Even though most countries in the Middle East do not share America’s preference for democracy and open markets, their strategic interests do not necessarily contradict America’s either.

And Americans have seen the consequences of trying to remake the Middle East in their image: billions of dollars wasted and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rose laments that the region seems bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters no matter what America does. “Trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence,” he believes.

Difficulty adjusting

Obama’s strategy is not without its risks. As the alarmist rhetoric of his Republican opponents suggests, it is hard for some to get used to the idea that not every crisis in the world is there for America to solve.

Some allies are apprehensive as well. The Arab states and Israel fear that the United States will leave them to their fate. Where Obama seeks disengagement, they sense weakness.

Rose recognizes that refusing to accept responsibility for domestic political outcomes in troubled countries in the developing world is controversial. When millions are dying or on the run in a country like Syria, there is a — commendable — American impulse to do something. But, he maintains, sometimes the country must cut its losses and step back if it is to bring its commitments into line with its capabilities. America cannot be the world’s policeman. Even Republicans, like Bush, who talk a lot about “leadership,” see that.

The greater danger, as Garfinkle pointed out, is that revisionist powers, like China, Iran and Russia, aren’t pressed into playing by America’s rules at all but try to fill a perceived vacuum instead. The extent to which they will — and succeed — will be the measure of Obama’s success.