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Obama and the limits of power

Will the Middle East pull-out and Asia pivot work?

Last updated: 28 Mar 2014 15:59
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.
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Obama is being attacked for being simultaneously too aggressive and too passive, writes Bell [AP]

US President Barack Obama is visiting Saudi Arabia on a fence-mending mission after US moves had severely shaken Riyadh's confidence in its ally. The visit follows declarations by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Bahrain last December, and more recent statements by US Secretary of State John Kerry that the US remains engaged in the globe and the Middle East.

However, his Saudi hosts are wary, concerned and angry by recent vacillations in Washington. These include the expeditious dropping of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the crossing of a dozen red lines on Syria, the shifts over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the decision to negotiate with Iran, and, now, the apparent weakness in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is a long list, and a look at Kerry's initiatives in the region may further confirm this view. His diplomatic wrangling over the Israel-Palestine conflict, Syria and Iran is an attempt to create a regional environment that requires the US less. By removing the Iran issue from the danger file, avoiding the war in Syria, and claiming to lessen Israel's problems in the Middle East, the hope is for less US crisis management or military intervention.

The Middle East has never been an easy file: Guaranteeing oil flows and Israel's security have soaked up large chunks of US diplomatic attention. Today, with the gyrations of the Arab revolutions and the Sunni-Shia schism, it is no wonder that Obama aims to shift away from a region of much trouble and little promise. It's also clear to all and sundry where the economic action and the US' next geopolitical rival is: The Pacific beckons loudly for US' first "Pacific President". The US-China relationship is the most important geopolitical dynamic of the 21st century: two economic behemoths with global ambitions.

The Saudis, and many others, view all this as a dangerous shift. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal has said: "While the wolf is eating the sheep, there is no shepherd to come to the rescue of the pack." The US' indecisiveness in the face of Putin's bold moves, China's military build-up, and even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's bluff scares many.

Inside Story - Trouble in US-Saudi relations?

Even the Asia pivot has been met with considerable cynicism. Many do not believe it adds up to much: too little to match China's rising power, but enough to rile Beijing. Obama's moves are often seen as reticent and ambiguous, a passive mixture of half steps and public relations rather than clear and determined policy. His change of heart over Syria, and his reaction to Russia have resurrected memories of when Nazi Germany annexed certain areas in Czechoslovakia. The Saudis, Japanese, and South Koreans - all US allies - are hedging their bets and becoming more active actors in their own right. Fundamentally, this view believes that, without the US, the law of the jungle is one step away.

Despite this battering, Obama's foreign policy may be worth a second look. He may be involved in a subtle and long-term game that many are not used to. Unlike his predecessor, he is cognizant of his country's capacities, and the limits of power. Instead of indulging in adventurism, he may be placing building blocks for the future at home and abroad: slowly out of the Middle East, slowly into the Asia Pacific region. His notorious indecision may be more a decision not to engage; the ambiguities, tactics to manage the resulting barrage of public and private pressures. However, Obama's new message about limits of power has been given little credence by his rivals so far.

Obama is being attacked for being simultaneously too aggressive and too passive. On Russia, he is berated for the sanctions, and for not doing enough. He may be trying to square circles, or imposing limits on a superpower's actions, a step many had called for desperately during former US President George Bush's wild adventures. There may also be a silver lining in Obama's reticence. His actions may be ambiguous but they do not unduly inflame. There may be times to confront dark forces - Syria may have been one of them - but, as a rule, that vector is a quagmire, and the world is divided about what deserves attention. If he had acted on Syria, many would have pointed to Palestine, etc.

China is certainly watching, and its instincts may be to confront and replace a weakened US. But cooperation alongside competition may not be an impossible feat for the two giants of the Pacific, and the options are many. Already, the two nations have the US-China Climate Partnership (together they produce 40 percent of global emissions). Can the US help mediate the issue of territorial differences between its allies and China? As unlikely as it may seem, the two, along with Russia, could even read the riot act to Middle Eastern actors, and force them to exit their labyrinth of distrust into a more constructive regional framework.

The latter is important because the Middle East has a way of refusing to be ignored, and regularly comes back to haunt all. Crises there may draw the US back to the region. The US' economy also remains dependent on oil prices, and therefore stability in the Gulf. Frictions arising from Chinese-UScompetition in the Asia-Pacific region could also rebound back to the Middle East. The easiest way to divert US energies is to stir the pot in a region that remains a zone for destructive meddling (a quality that its own nations specialise in). Unfortunately, the Middle East is not going away - but for all the wrong reasons.

At the end of the day, the Saudis may well be right, and the US may be asking for trouble by changing its role in the Middle East. The other great powers may have appetites that sneer at the limits to power that Obama advocates. Yet, if the US is to have a hope of contending with China, it has to get its house in order, and adventures in the Middle East will only weaken it. In the future, both China and the USA must avoid its seductive spiral. The best way to ensure this is to set their common house in order in the Pacific. In the meantime, time will tell whether Obama's approach to power is a wise balm, or simply naive illusion in the face of our darker natures.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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