New York // Barack Obama’s top foreign policy adviser says Washington’s scaled-back policy towards the Middle East reflects the administration’s determination not to be “consumed 24/7 by one region, as important as it is”.
“There’s a whole world out there,” the US president’s national security adviser Susan Rice told The New York Times. “And we’ve got interests and opportunities in that whole world.”
At Mr Obama’s direction, Ms Rice worked over the summer on mapping out a new role for the US in the Middle East that would allow him to refocus his second-term global agenda on America’s growing interests in East Asia and away from the turmoil that has monopolised Washington’s attention and resources.
Mr Obama presented the review’s results in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month that centered almost exclusively on his new Middle East priorities: negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran; renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; and containing the violence in Syria.
Diplomatic opportunities such as the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s goal of sanctions relief, would be pursued, but the speech cast doubt on whether Mr Obama would ever consider broad military involvement in the region, except to protect the free flow of oil, stop nuclear proliferation or in counterterrorism operations.
There was also little emphasis on previously central policy issues such as Egypt or on democracy promotion in post-Arab Spring countries, a stark change in tone from 2011 and an implicit acceptance of the position that the US has a limited ability to shape outcomes in countries where revolts have devolved into war or violently polarised societies.
“He thought it was a good time to step back and reassess, in a very critical and kind of no-holds-barred way, how we conceive the region,” Ms Rice told the Times in an interview published on Saturday.
Her comments reflect a growing view in Washington that the Middle East is declining in relative importance and the interests that sustained the traditional US role are changing, due in part to its increasing domestic energy production.
While the US will remain involved in the Middle East “for a long time”, “this is something quite substantial,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s not an abandonment, but it’s a re-dimensioning of how much attention they pay.”
“The shift in Washington is about making an effort to conserve American power,” said Mr Serwer. “There is a feeling that from 2001 on we exhausted ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan and we can’t afford either financially or in terms of national esprit to continue in that direction.”
He said Washington was also preoccupied with the slow economic recovery and the political budget crisis in Congress. The administration thinks that it is no longer feasible for the US to be the Middle East’s policeman and that conserving power and restoring the country’s economic health will allow the US to be “an effective fireman when the need truly arises”.
The new policy has its share of critics in Washington, many of whom say that simply reacting to crises as they emerge will be detrimental to US interests in the longer term, when it will be forced to engage despite its efforts to remain on the sidelines.
“The place where that’s most obvious is in Syria, where to limit America interests exclusively to chemical weapons is just a mistake,” Mr Serwer said. “The question of extremists and the destabilising of the region are serious questions that demand American attention.”
Mr Obama’s stated first-term goal of “pivoting” away from the Middle East to East Asia, where the US sees its future economic interests as well as where it must contain China, was stillborn in the wake of the Arab Spring and spreading conflict. Ms Rice’s policy review was meant to correct the US course in Asia, which was also hampered by the budget crisis in Washington.
Every Saturday morning in July and August, Ms Rice, 48, who was promoted from her former position as UN ambassador, met with a team of White House foreign policy experts to reassess America’s core interests in the Middle East and what was realistically achievable.
“It would have been easy to write the president’s speech in a way that would have protected us from criticism,” Philip H Gordon, the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council, told the Times. “We were trying to be honest and realistic.”
During its intense debates, the team papered Ms Rice’s office wall with notes, as it worked to meet Mr Obama’s UN speech deadline. The president was updated daily throughout the process and he prompted Ms Rice to emphasise and develop particular issues that reflected the change in his thinking since 2011.
No State Department or Pentagon staff were involved in the policy review, which likely allowed for a relatively swift and coherent doctrine to emerge, Mr Serwer said, unlike the administration debate over Syria policy, which dragged on for years without a clear strategy.
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