The main international goal of the Obama administration for its entire second term has been to bring the United States into the 21st century by reorienting its economy and military preparedness toward East Asia, and away from the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The point is not so much to abandon the Middle East as it is to only attempt to settle issues that the American government can influence directly while it shifts to Asia. Two years ago, the only Middle East questions open to direct American engagement were Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Accordingly, Obama has approached Iran’s new President Hasan Rouhani, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinians’ President Mahmoud Abbas. In response to American prodding, the Israelis and Palestinians resumed direct talks, for the first time in years. Then came Mr. Rouhani’s post-election proposal for “win-win” deals with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Both show the wisdom of Obama’s choices.
Obama believes that the Arabs have begun a profound renewal and rebirth whose violence and unpredictability – already seen on a dramatic scale – will last at least a century. One historical gauge of the time that will likely be required before the upheavals in the Middle East yield stable decent political systems is the French Revolution, which burst on the world in 1789. It was not until a century later that France could escape dictatorship and instability with the establishment of the Third Republic. With decades and centuries in mind, Obama and his advisers hoped that while the US was shifting to Asia, the conflicts in the Arab world would not boil over.
Regrettably, that meant not reacting strongly to mass murder in Syria, or the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Egypt. Like so many things, foreign policy is about choices, and the Obama administration believed that the absolutely vital choice was Asia. Forced to subordinate other problems to the shift, they believed there was little the US could do to influence events inside Arab countries and hoped that the current revolutions and civil conflicts that have marked the Arab uprisings so far would not explode.
Assad’s apparent poison gas attack on Aug. 21 ruined these hopes. The problem now is how to get back to Asia without abandoning the Syrian people.