A survivor of a September attack by Syrian government forces in Aleppo. The civil war is straining President Obama’s strategy.
The eruptions in the Middle East have posed perhaps the severest, most direct test yet of the limits of President Obama’s signature foreign policy innovation during his first term, what the White House hails as the “light footprint” strategy.
Sensitive to public sentiment that a decade of war had debilitated America, and eager to focus on economic problems at home, President Obama quickly embraced a mix of remote-control technology and at-a-distance diplomacy to contain the most explosive problems in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Strikes by unmanned drone aircraft increased sixfold, secret cyberweapons were aimed at Iran, and special forces killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist and made night raids the currency of American force.
For a while it worked. As Mr. Obama’s newly fallen director of central intelligence, David H. Petraeus, asked so succinctly a year ago, “Who wouldn’t want a light-footprint strategy?”
But implicit in Mr. Petraeus’s arch question was the recognition that the strategy has limited utility. And now Mr. Obama is under more pressure than ever to become engaged in the Middle East in a way that he avoided during the presidential campaign. In his own party, there are rumblings that he should intervene more directly to halt the slaughter in Syria — by placing Patriot missiles around the region to take down President Bashar al-Assad’s air power — and to renew efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as soon as the current missile barrages can be contained.
Overarching all those problems is the question of Iran, which has fueled the Syrian conflict in part to show that it will not sit idly while sanctions eat away at its oil revenue. Mr. Obama has already declared that he wants to start direct negotiations with Iran — but it is a last-ditch effort, his own aides acknowledge, to avert a military confrontation that they fear could come by the middle of 2013.
Mr. Obama had hoped not to be preoccupied with these crises in the last weeks of his first term. The hope four years ago was that by now he would be reaping the peace dividends of extracting America from Iraq and withdrawing from Afghanistan, even if the mission was far from complete, so he could turn to what during the campaign he frequently characterized as “some nation-building at home.”
Since 2009, Mr. Obama has tried to avoid getting sucked into the vortex of Middle Eastern conflict and dysfunction that drained so many of his predecessors. It was a deliberate choice from the start, his aides say. Fresh to the presidency, he asked his national security staff to reassess where America was overinvested and underinvested around the world.
The answer, his national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, recalled last week, came back quickly: “We were overweighted in some regions, such as our military commitments in the Middle East,” and underweighted in regions where America’s future prosperity lay, notably elsewhere in Asia.
That helps explain why Mr. Obama is moving ahead this weekend with a trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia rather than burying himself in the Situation Room in a running conference call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, whom Mr. Obama is leaning on to contain the militantPalestinian party Hamas and stop the predictable escalation of missile attacks.
“We never considered scrapping the trip,” one of Mr. Obama’s top aides said on Friday. “It’s the difference between keeping focused on what’s important in the long term and the urgent crisis du jour, which will always be there.”
To Mr. Obama’s critics, the root of the seeming absence of American leverage in the Middle East today is a light footprint that was simply too light.
Mr. Obama, I got a “Light Footprint For You…