President Obama is finally realizing that it is hard to be an empire. That’s all the more true of an involved empire, one that believes it has the ability to police the world.
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“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” said national security adviser Susan Rice. That “one region” is, of course, the Middle East, which takes up all the president’s time and energy. So Obama picked three key subjects out of the candy box: the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the problem of Iran’s nuclear program and resolving the conflict in Syria. All the rest — Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Iraq — will have to make do on their own.
The paradox is that, of these three crises, it looks like the only place where a new window of opportunity awaits the United States is in Iran. The Israel-Palestinian conflict has only six months left to prove that American involvement has been fruitful or a failure. Even if an agreement is reached, it is likely to collapse in the implementation stage. Syria has become a killing machine running on its own, and no force can stop it. As for the volatile areas, any American intervention could only cause more trouble.
The U.S. administration’s reevaluation of its foreign and security policy in the region makes it very clear that from now on there is no chance of military intervention either. The large stick used by the diplomatic service is like a magic wand that comes apart into a colorful handkerchief.
We can understand Obama’s frustration and distress. So far, the U.S. has not managed to solve a single conflict in the greater Middle East. Iraq is an Iranian protectorate that blows up every morning, Afghanistan is becoming a Taliban state once again, Egypt has developed into a hostile country, Saudi Arabia is seething with fury because of the change in the U.S.’s relationship with Iran and its failure in Syria, and Libya, which symbolized the victory of the combination of local and Western forces, is disintegrating into its individual districts.
From the American perspective, the traditional division between pro-Western and anti-Western states has no significance anymore. Washington is saying that it is time to bow out. Those who want democracy in their country can make it themselves. Those who want to stop fighting civil wars can lay down their arms on their own and those who have car bombs exploding in their backyards can pick up the pieces after them.
If Russia wants to grab the U.S.’s place, let it go ahead. Indeed, the romance between Russia and Egypt and the big break with Syria only show that there are no second chances to take the test when it comes to proper policy management, at least not this semester.
Only one question remains. Why does the Obama administration insist on continuing to deal with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, of all things, where its chances of succeeding are less than the odds of winning the lottery? It seems the answer has to do with the paradox that says failure is success. An administration that is concerned about its future is careful of getting into conflict with an Israeli government, and that is all the more true of a right-wing Israeli government. It must settle for a show of willingness and determination to move the process forward, but only the process.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, the process is simple — it has no risk, no potential of military intervention, no strategic threat that could lead to a regional war. Even the tiniest amount of progress, such as dismantling an illegal outpost, releasing prisoners or relief measures for commerce, can be taken as a great accomplishment. For the far-right that is running Israel, the “reevaluation” of American foreign policy is good news. All it has to do is act as if it is a partner in the peace process, as if it is anxious for the welfare of the talks with the Palestinians, as if it accepts the two-state solution. This is the art of horse-thieving that Israel is skilled in, and that the U.S. is also familiar with. That is how friends operate.