As the United States vacillates over what to do in Syria, it might be a good time to check in with the Obama foreign policy “pivot.” A little less than two years ago President Obama’s administration announced that the United States would pivot away from the Middle East and toward Asia.
There is certainly nothing wrong with the idea of greater U.S. engagement with Asia. Asia will be increasingly important in global economic, political, and security affairs as the 21st century unfolds. Greater American political engagement, and especially an expanded U.S. military presence, are fully appropriate and welcome to many nations in the Pacific region.
But apparently the nations of the Middle East did not get the president’s memo. Since the pivot was announced, Iraq has descended further into instability and sectarian violence, jeopardizing hard-won American gains. Libya has no functioning government, and the terrorist factions who murdered our ambassador (an act yet to be punished) continue to export violence throughout North Africa. Egypt—which is critical to American economic, political, and security interests in the region—elected an extremist Muslim government, experienced a military coup, and is deeply divided. Iran moves ever closer to possessing nuclear weapons, slow-rolling Western negotiators at every turn. Syria’s civil war is spreading beyond its borders and endangering the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. And in the background lies perhaps the most dangerous wild card of all, the fragile nuclear-armed government of Pakistan.
The Middle East is descending into chaos, U.S. influence is at an all-time low, and those nations that remain allied with America will soon be looking to hedge their bets. Now, we might well engage in an act of war against Syria—but not, the administration promises, an act that could conceivably overthrow the regime that used chemical weapons against its own people.
What if Franklin Roosevelt had announced in 1939 a “pivot” away from England and Europe and toward, say, Latin America? American foreign policy challenges obviously lay in Europe, with Hitler’s aggressive expansionism. Observers—probably including Hitler himself—might have concluded that Roosevelt was delusional. Presidents cannot simply announce that their foreign policy problems lie other than where they do. Presidents are not free to choose their adversaries or the challenges they confront. Lincoln was not, Roosevelt was not, George W. Bush was not, and neither is Barack Obama.
Yet President Obama’s would-be pivot is not a one-off policy error, but a stark illustration of the underlying reason he has the poorest foreign policy record of any recent president. He invests a mystical power in his words and intentions: He thinks they can change reality.
President Obama came into office persuaded that his words and intentions would result in new and vastly improved relations with the Muslim world, and especially Iran—without ever asking whether anyone in the Iranian government happened to share this hope.
He left the impression that his well-intentioned administration would resolve longstanding Israeli-Palestinian disputes—without ever asking whether anything on the ground had changed to make this possible. Now his secretary of state is embarked on a quixotic mission with no more reason to think it will succeed than that he wants very much that it should.
President Obama’s administration announced an early “reset” of relations with Russia—apparently without asking whether Vladimir Putin had the slightest interest in accommodating this outcome, except on his own terms.
A pivot away from the Middle East will not make the problems there mysteriously disappear. Whether the president wishes to or not, he must deal with them.
These failings of Obama policy are not minor miscalculations that need to be tweaked. They represent a flawed way of looking at the world. There are names for people who believe that incantations or the purity of intentions can change external facts. These policies are less in need of a foreign policy critique than of a medical diagnosis.
No one should wish for anything but greater U.S. engagement with Asia in the coming years. But as American weakness and the absence of American leadership suck us ever deeper into the morass of the Middle East, as they surely will, perhaps at least there is a lesson for the narcissism of the political left: Words, good intentions, and sheer willfulness do not change reality. Never have, never will.
Jeff Bergner served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as assistant secretary of state. His most recent book is Against Modern Humanism: On the Culture of Ego.