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Is the United States Playing 'Small Ball'?

Obama is wrestling with Iran, Syria and Israel -- what happened to all the big stuff?

Contrary to expectations, the Obama administration is pursuing a remarkably active diplomatic agenda -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Syria -- even though the odds of success on each item are not exactly promising. At this point, it seems likely that Barack Obama will go into the history books primarily for his domestic achievements -- health care, economic recovery, broader social tolerance, among other things -- not to mention his symbolic importance as the nation's first non-white president. And unless peripatetic Secretary of State John Kerry can pull off a few miracles in the next year or so, he and the president will be remembered for a lot of well-intentioned activism that didn't yield many tangible results.

Still it's hard not to root for both of them.

A long-term nuclear deal with Iran would be a lot better than an unconstrained Iranian program or an ill-advised preventive war. A viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn't solve all the problems of the Middle East, but it would be good for the United States, not to mention for both Israelis and Palestinians. Getting rid of all of Syria's chemical weapons would be highly desirable, as well, and might move the United States closer to ending that grinding civil war.

But step back for a moment and consider the bigger picture. If we look at America's position in the world and some broader global trends, we see that the United States seems to be devoting a vast amount of diplomatic energy and activity to a set of issues that may not matter as much as the conventional wisdom suggests. That is to say: Is the United States playing "small ball," and losing sight of some bigger issues that deserve more attention?

Remember how good things are right now. The U.S. economy still accounts for about a quarter of gross world product, and despite rising inequality and lagging employment it is still outperforming the other advanced industrial economies. Despite the sequester and the various strategic blunders of the past decade, the United States is still the only country in the world with a global military presence, and it will remain the world's strongest military power for several more decades (at least). Taken together, the United States plus its allies account for more than 70 percent of global military spending; most of the countries and non-state groups that the United States regards as potential adversaries are pipsqueaks by comparison. The nation faces no threat of invasion or even a truly damaging foreign attack -- a level of core security that allows its overactive foreign-policy mavens to wander around the world and tell other countries what to do.

In other words, the deck of contemporary international politics is still heavily stacked in Washington's favor. That gives the United States a lot of potential influence, of course, but it also means that there are hardly any international developments that could have a big, immediate, and decisive impact on America's position in the world or on the security and prosperity of the American people. After all, the United States did suffer a major economic meltdown in 2008 -- not to mention that, over the past decades, it has been on the losing end of two costly wars and many Americans have suffered severe losses during this time. Absent those missteps, the country would be doing even better. But from a global perspective, the United States came out of those episodes in remarkably good shape.

The result is a paradox: America's power and favorable global position is what allows it to intervene so freely -- but there are hardly any international outcomes that are really worth investing much blood or treasure.

The country is willing to get involved in lots of places, provided it can do so quickly and cheaply. Yes, sometimes U.S. leaders miscalculate, and what was supposed to be an easy intervention turns into a costly quagmire. If Bush and Co. had known in advance what occupying Afghanistan and Iraq would really have cost, even the most bellicose neocon might have had second thoughts. And if more people had figured out what the real cost was likely to be, Bush would never have persuaded the country to go along. Why? Because anything that looks like it might be expensive just isn't going to be worth it.

Now consider the items that are soaking up most of the administration's foreign-policy bandwidth: Syria, Israel-Palestine, and Iran.

Syria. What's happening there is an undeniable humanitarian tragedy, though it still pales in comparison to the horrors caused by the Second Congo War, which the West barely even noticed. But humanitarian considerations aside, U.S. security or prosperity does not depend on the outcome. A victory by the Assad regime would be a black eye for human rights and democracy, but the United States has dealt with the Assad cabal for over 40 years and it could do so for another 40 if it had to. No matter whether Assad wins, the rebels oust him, or the country breaks apart, most Americans will barely notice. Yes, Syria and Iraq are probably becoming breeding grounds for more extremists, and it is conceivable that a few of them might one day try to launch some sort of terrorist operation against the United States. But even this danger needs to be kept in perspective: It is not a certainty they would try, or that they would succeed. More importantly, the damage they might cause is probably smaller than the costs of the measures we are taking to prevent it, and certainly smaller than the costs of military intervention in Syria itself.

This cruel reality is why the Obama administration has remained (mostly) aloof; what happens in Syria will not make much difference to the overwhelming majority of Americans. When you also consider that nobody has any good ideas for how to solve Syria's problems, then the case for doing relatively little is unassailable.

Israel-Palestine. The combination of unconditional U.S. support for Israel and 40-plus years of occupation has damaged the U.S. image in the region and made it look both weak and hypocritical. It would make both strategic and moral sense for the United States to use the leverage at its disposal to force the two sides to a fair solution. But if a solution isn't achieved -- which is the most likely outcome, by the way -- the United States is going to be just fine. The victims of diplomatic failure will be mostly the Palestinians, who will remain stateless and under foreign occupation, but also Israelis, who will be stuck with the apartheid label and face growing international censure.

As much as I would like to see a viable two-state solution, this isn't as much of a vital American interest as you might think. After all, if it were absolutely essential for the United States to get a deal, it wouldn't keep recycling the same failed negotiators, tough-minded U.S. diplomats would play some serious hardball with both parties, and U.S. officials and press officers wouldn't engage in the worst sort of Orwellian double-talk when discussing the issue. If it really, truly mattered, domestic politics wouldn't be a serious obstacle and the United States would have pushed hard for an agreement decades ago. But it hasn't. And this, in itself, says a lot.

Iran. Aren't the nuclear talks with Iran a really big deal, well worth all the effort that Kerry, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, their staffs, and the rest of the P5+1 are pouring into them? Well, maybe -- but it's easy to exaggerate the importance of this initiative, too.

If the talks succeed, the United States and its allies will have cut Iran's program back and made a future Iranian "breakout" more difficult. That would be very good, but Iran will still be a latent nuclear power with the requisite knowledge to reconstitute its program and then move to weaponize if circumstances change. A deal is still highly desirable, but is not by itself a game changer.

Yet the same is true if the talks fail. Even if no long-term agreement is reached, Iran probably won't cross the nuclear threshold anytime soon (unless the United States keeps threatening to attack it or actually goes ahead and bombs). Even if Iran does get its own nuclear weapon someday, that development won't turn the Islamic Republic into a superpower or allow it to blackmail its neighbors. And it certainly isn't going to commit suicide by attacking Israel, which has a robust nuclear deterrent already. I hope the talks succeed, but even if they fail, it may not make that much difference, especially if the United States is perceived by the rest of the world as having negotiated in good faith.

So while it's hard to criticize the good intentions behind all this diplomatic activity, the outcomes are not really critical to America's future security or prosperity. And in the meantime, there are a number of issues that have received less attention than they deserve: climate change, Asia, nuclear security, and the U.S. and global economy.

Climate change. This issue might well be the most challenging problem in the history of modern diplomacy, as it involves complex problems of cross-national and inter-generational equity, high costs, monitoring issues, and big domestic constituencies with a lot of skin in the game. But it is also a problem that threatens the wellbeing of billions of people and hundreds (if not thousands) of species. If humankind does not figure out a solution, future generations will wonder why officials from the world's most powerful country spent so much time worrying about a bunch of small countries in the Middle East, while the human species blithely made the only habitable planet we know of a lot less benign.

Asia. A second big long-term problem is achieving a stable balance of power and a common territorial consensus in Asia. I'm not that optimistic about the future of Sino-American relations, but the evolution of that relationship matters a whole lot more than the fate of Bashar al-Assad, or even the outcome of the Iranian nuclear talks. Obama and Co. seemed to have their eye on this issue during the first term, but the second term follow-through has been disappointing.

Nuclear security. The national security establishment has vastly overstated the danger from conventional terrorism, because terrorist groups are too weak to do much damage unless they get their hands on weapons of mass destruction (and especially a nuclear weapon). The Obama administration made this a signature issue back in 2009, and made some modest progress on it during the first term. But not much has happened since then, and there is still an awful lot of inadequately-secured nuclear material out there in the world. If some of it got into the wrong hands and actually was used to make a crude terrorist bomb, this event would be a whole lot more significant than Syria, Iran, or Israel-Palestine combined.

U.S. and global economy. External events impinge on U.S. power, but internal conditions generate it. Ensuring that new generations are better educated than their predecessors is a lot more important to our future security or prosperity than figuring out who gets to run Syria or Afghanistan, and getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership across the finish line probably matters more to the U.S. economy than a Middle East peace deal. But if recent news reports are accurate, neither one is likely to take place in the time Obama has left in office.

To their credit, Obama and Kerry are trying to use U.S. influence to do some good things. Like most of its predecessors, however, this administration is better at listing desirable objectives than it is at focusing laser-like on a few really important ones. And so they succumb to the "tyranny of the urgent," wherein top policymakers end up focusing on today's screaming headlines and their perennially over-full inboxes, and end up neglecting the big, long-term issues that will play the larger role in shaping America's national destiny.

CJ Gunther-Pool/Getty Images

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