The End of Obama's "More Modest Strategy" for the Middle East

They said they wouldn't get tied down. They did.

"There’s a whole world out there, and we’ve got interests and opportunities in that whole world,” was the way National Security Advisor Susan Rice explained to a New York Times reporter last October why President Barack Obama would follow a "more modest strategy in the Middle East" during his second term in office and stressed that the White House wanted "to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him."

“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is," insisted Rice. But then fast forward four months later to Davos, Switzerland, where the Wall Street Journal detected a "fixation on the Middle East" which showed "how far world leaders—and the U.S., in particular—still remain from turning the page on the region's crises" and it seems that not a lot has been left of that "more modest strategy in the a Middle East."

In fact, as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares for another round (we stopped counting) of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East where he is trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, after attending the recent international summit on ending the civil war in Syria that following more talks on resolving the Iran nuclear crisis, the Obama administration's goal now is seeking "to dispel 'the myth of disengagement, particularly the notion that the U.S. is pulling back from the Middle East," as unnamed U.S. quoted by the Journal put it.

The result is that contrary to Rice's pledges, her administration has been "consumed 24/7 by one region," and that that one region was not East Asia where Washington was supposed to "pivoting" its geostrategic policy not so long ago, and where the danger of a military conflict between China and Japan should probably cause President Obama and his National Security Advisor more sleepless nights than the latest dispute over the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

To be fair to Rice she didn't signal in her interview with the Times last October that the Obama administration was planning to pull back from the Middle East or to begin a process of disengagement from the region.

Instead, the "new heading" of the Obama administration's Middle East, she said, would mean less emphasis on promoting democracy in the region while resisting being drawn into new Iraq-like military interventions in the Middle East. But she insisted that curbing Iran's nuclear program and ending the civil war in Syria would remain top U.S. priorities and be achieved through a diplomatic approach and multilateral means.

And what about the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks? The Times report in October noted that after "vigorous debate" Obama administration officials “decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority—even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term—in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of

a peacemaker.” Hey, Israeli-Palestinian peace was not a top U.S. priority, but since Secretary Kerry liked to do peace processing, so, what the heck, let's do it.

That the Obama administration's continuing engagement in the Israeli Palestinian peace process seems to be driven more by the need to burnish Kerry's ego and and less by a consideration of core national interests became clear when President Obama told a New Yorker interviewer recently that there the chances of of Kerry brokering a peace deal was "less than fifty-fifty" (imagine President Kennedy telling the world that the chances of resolving the Cuban missile crisis was "less than fifty-fifty"). So it looked as though the time and effort that Kerry was putting in all this amounted to nothing more than going through the motions.

Realists have applauded President Obama's abandonment of his predecessor's costly fantasy known as the Freedom Agenda, and for his decisions to engage with Iran and to reject the military option in Syria. But it is not clear that these steps are driven by a grand Realpolitik strategy, as two critics of the Obama administration's Middle East policy suggested recently when they wrote in the New York Times that Obama and Kerry wanted to form "a 'concert' of great powers — Russia, America, the European nations and Iran — working together to stabilize the Middle East as in the 19th century, when the 'Concert of Europe' worked together to stabilize that Continent."

Instead, Obama and Kerry have been been pursuing a series of reactive muddling-through policies in the Middle East with the emphasis on retrenching and cost-cutting operations (withdrawing from Iraq; averting a war with Iran; avoiding military entanglement in Syria; preventing another Palestinian Intifada; staying in good terms with any regime that happens to rule Egypt) and doing so by trying not to antagonize U.S. allies and key domestic constituencies.