The three-year long civil war in Syria has highlighted the contraction of American influence in the Middle East and West Asia, now an undeniable characteristic of the political landscape here. Washington’s waning influence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other countries is partly due to the increasing independence and assertiveness of the players themselves. It is also the result of traditional balance-of-power politics by insurgent regional adversaries, like Iran. Finally, it is due to the internal facts of the American presidency – its lobbyists, bureaucrats and the personality of the president himself.
American policy in the Middle East and West Asia has developed at the seam where geopolitical and domestic forces meet in the Oval office. Among senior American officials a new awareness that events may overtake policymakers in Washington – in Benghazi for instance – has produced a reticence to intercede. That reticence is also the result of a newly parsimonious view of American power. The wide path of Washington’s imperial trajectory has rounded its apex; it is now on its way back to earth. Notably, that constrained, realistic view of American power may produce an accord with Iran, particularly as the president seeks to concretize his foreign policy legacy.
Shaping the presidency
Presidential historians credibly claim that the American president both shapes and is shaped by the office he occupies. The manner in which the evolution occurs is both personal and due to local and international developments.
Consciously or otherwise the president telegraphs his views, biases, and inclinations through his advisors and staff into the far reaches of the foreign policy apparatus. Every node in the network – nearly every individual charged with implementing some aspect of policy – interprets his or her job through the greater or lesser focus of the presidential prism. The relationship is stronger among political appointees and members of their staff, but it also exists among career bureaucrats. In turn, the bureaucracy, its codes and standard operating procedures, carves the deep channels that constrain or direct presidential prerogative.
The interactivity of the office, particularly in a direct media environment that permits ready communication with the American people, means that the electorate also shapes the president’s policy in very real terms. He may respond to criticism or encouragement at a town-hall meeting or he may consider polls that emerge as an issue develops in real time. In this case, consider the decision to bomb, and then not bomb, Syria.
At the same time events themselves shape presidential choices, the foreign policy machinery and ultimately, outcomes. In some instances a president may feel compelled to radically modify an initial posture due to the actions of other actors. In others, he may be forced to create policy extemporaneously to manage developments he and his advisors could not foresee.
It may be hard to remember now, but fifteen years ago George W. Bush communicated a notably constrained foreign policy vision as contender for the Republican Party nomination. He claimed to believe that nation-building was an exercise in futility and the outcome of bad judgment, an implicit condemnation of his predecessor’s policies in the Balkans.
Yet, nine months into the Bush presidency Al Qaeda attacked New York and other American targets. The terror attacks precipitated a change in policy, but that change was also shaped by a human, bureaucratic legacy of imperial involvement and broad national receptivity to violence. Other countries, for example Spain after the 2004 Madrid bombings, may have chosen to disengage with the Middle East after an attack. Bush, and Americans, chose to wage war in several countries. It is worth noting the fact that national preferences change – Americans today are far less receptive to arguments for war than they were in the days and months following September 11, 2001.
If events, public opinion and the views of presidential staff and the bureaucracy are the inputs and implements of policy – its environment, its ears and arms – the president himself is the locus that integrates the whole. He possesses his own personal prerogatives and views and likely regards himself within a historical context. It is reasonable to believe that Barack Obama knows that his place in history has been firmly and prominently secured by his election in 2008; he is the first black president of a country that enslaved blacks for 250 years. But that achievement alone is insufficient from the perspective of policy triumphs.
Barack Obama and his policy goals
Like many presidents before him, Obama’s understandable drive to achieve real and durable change impacts his view of priorities and opportunities. Franklin Roosevelt defeated the Nazis and brokered the New Deal – two extraordinary foreign and domestic achievements. Lyndon Johnson lost the war in Vietnam but he also worked to close the civil rights gap in America; his is a mixed legacy. Barack Obama implemented a major set of healthcare reforms, and he has reduced the number of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he has not yet achieved a positive – as opposed to reactive – foreign policy goal that may contribute to his presidential legacy. And that’s a critical point: that the difference between active policy engagements and the resolution of policy failures is a meaningful one. It is easier to remember Johnson’s role in losing Vietnam than it is to remember who withdrew the last troops in that failed war.
When he first came to office Obama demonstrated an ambitious willingness to address and resolve substantial foreign policy challenges. He aimed to provide a path to a Palestinian-Israeli accord. He pledged to vacate Guantanamo Bay and to forge a new relationship with the Arab and Muslim world, one based on mutual respect and security. He voiced a willingness to reexamine ties with Iran and to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. His policy goals were heroic in their scope and the magnitude of their ambition, and real movement on any of the three would have produced a meaningful legacy.
Regrettably, the policy agenda was encumbered by internal opposition or external events – and in many cases the president failed to overcome those challenges. His failure was due in some part to his personal shortcomings – like his dogged insistence on bipartisan agreement with a recalcitrant Republican party, but it was also because of entrenched domestic lobbyists. The structural context also featured increasingly assertive global adversaries and real resource constraints owing to a recession and a trillion-dollar Afghanistan/Iraq war bill.
In the case of Palestine, Obama began his first term by highlighting the illegality of Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories – a longtime American position on the issue. He spent a great deal of personal credibility when he proclaimed his position in Cairo among people who were listening closely. Yet opportunistic legislators with a deferential relationship to members of the Israel lobby quickly undermined the president. He retreated from his policy goal in Palestine after acknowledging the domestic constraints he faced on issues related to Israel.
And then, in 2010, the Arab revolutions began. Tunisia moved first, but Egypt quickly began to dominate the news around the world. As the largest supplier of military aid and political support to the Egyptian government, the US was widely perceived as having a special responsibility to the Egyptian people. Obama was faced with an unpalatable choice: Push for democracy or preserve a long-time American client. He dithered for weeks before finally backing the revolutionaries. His understandable indecisiveness – or more charitably, his wait-and-see tactic – would later come to define his approach to unrest in Libya and Syria. While prudent from a capacity perspective – Egypt made it clear that American influence was limited – Obama’s decision to “lead from behind,” the dominant strategy in Libya, is hardly the kind of legacy-affirming leadership he would needed to shape a grand, positive foreign policy legacy.
In Pakistan, the administration attempted to “reset” the relationship three different times: first, when Obama became president, then when Asif Ali Zardari replaced Pervez Musharraf, and finally when Nawaz Sharif was elected. But in each case, despite his outward appeal for better relations, Obama’s policy goals were undermined by Pakistan’s insistence on autonomous dealings with groups and people the US regards as a threat, by the American drone attack policy in the country, and by disagreements over Pakistan’s nuclear capability. It became apparent fairly quickly that the Pakistan relationship would not yield a legacy (or any) achievement for the president.
Failure on Palestine and Pakistan left Obama with one major foreign policy challenge around which he could craft a meaningful legacy. The relationship with Iran was a difficult one following the 1979 revolution, and it worsened after George W. Bush issued his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002. But a confluence of local and international developments provided the opening that the president needed to begin to move on his long-standing Iran policy goal. First, a war-weary American people exhibited a greater degree of receptivity to a diplomatic resolution of Iran’s nuclear program. That public openness enabled the president to confront AIPAC and its affiliated members of Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the Saudi leadership more forcefully than he otherwise might. At the same time, a change in the Iranian leadership enabled the president to make a credible case for engagement among his diplomats and other world leaders. Finally, the fact that Obama is at the end of his second term has produced an urgency and high degree of engagement with the issue, a critical factor for success.
But success is still a long way off. And from the perspective of the Americans movement on Iran has always required Russian cooperation. Whether that help will be forthcoming in the wake of Crimea is an open question.
A version of this article appeared in The National.