While President Obama's Middle East address is likely to cover many of the core issues confronting the United States in the region, there is one absolutely central theme that will remain unspoken but that will influence future policy more than any other. America's influence in the region is fading fast and will soon be at its lowest ebb since the Second World War.
The president will seek to lay out a vision for America's policies in the region. He has already tipped his hand as to where he stands on several respects. He is offering the speech -- long discussed and in the minds of many, too long delayed -- at the U.S. State Department, about as safe a venue as one can imagine. He has timed it to precede by a week a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, thus making it appear a trifle reactive and a bit defensive. And he today announced targeted sanctions against Syria, thus trying to set the stage for the speech with a posture of toughness and to inoculate himself against criticisms that he has done too little to counter the barbarity of the Syrian regime. He will still buoyed by the success of the bin Laden raid, but these other factors hint at some of the unease found in private exchanges with U.S. policymakers.
In his speech, the president and his speechwriters will also be confounded by the fact that there are so many issues linked together in the region that it would literally be impossible for anyone to describe a coherent policy. The Arab Spring alone has set Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories side by side to demonstrate that the United States can ill afford, and Obama is disinclined to pursue, cookie-cutter approaches to situations that are radically different in terms of players, stakes, historical context, and governing dynamics. Add to this mix the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear program, the efforts to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction more broadly, the transition out of Iraq, the transition out of Afghanistan, the problems with the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, Kurdish aspirations for independence, the efforts by Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas to orchestrate a growing web of influence throughout the region from Syria to Lebanon to the West Bank and now to Egypt and beyond, the global aspirations of Turkey, the growing influence of China, energy politics and economics, rising food prices, massive unemployment, terrorism, tribal divisions, economic stagnation, and a social fabric being rapidly rewoven thanks to new technologies, and you have a bit of a sense of the brain-numbing nature of trying to create something called "Middle East Policy."
Instead of such a grand plan, what Obama will offer are sketches and snippets illustrating how his policy is different from that of past presidents and where it is consistent with America's historical posture. Expect a hint of a more sympathetic stance toward moderates, an echo of the Cairo speech, a dollop of incentive toward political and economic reform, a dose of anti-terrorist toughness, a modicum of multilateralism, a shot of unilateralist willingness to defend ourselves, and an utz or an utz and a half of a willingness to embrace and encourage social transformation throughout the region.
But underlying all this are some stark truths. America is leaving Iraq and Afghanistan. We are doing so not because our high-minded goals have been achieved but because we have lost the will for such fights. We also simply can't afford such battles -- not just old ones, but new ones. Future interventions will either be small -- à la the Osama raid -- or collaborative and strictly limited -- à la Libya. Where only a big intervention will do -- as in the case of an Iran that pursued a nuclear program more publicly and aggressively -- it just won't happen.
We will do everything in our power to appear tough -- embracing sanctions, leaving symbolic deployments of troops behind, offering rhetoric that will rattle with the finest saber steel. But we will have fewer dollars for foreign aid, fewer troops to deploy, and less money to support long supply chains and extended deployments. Thanks in part to reforms, in part to the allies we misguidedly backed, and in part to our treatment of other allies, we will have fewer, closer allies in the region. Our natural allies from outside the region -- from Europe to Japan -- will be constrained by their own financial straits and the likelihood of years of recession or financial weakness to come. NATO may have learned a lot in Afghanistan and Libya, but one of the things it has surely learned is to severely restrict such involvements in the future.
The relative economic clout of the United States in the region has diminished as markets like China and other rapidly growing economies have become more important in terms of energy consumption. The relative political clout of the U.S. in the region has shrunk as, in addition to all the above reasons, emerging powers are playing an ever bigger role and are easier, less-demanding partners than we are. It is also diminished further by the fact that we are offering old policy approaches that aren't working (goodbye, George Mitchell. You gave it your best shot) often in cahoots with partners who are showing little willingness to adapt to new circumstances.
Without hearing Obama's remarks, we can't know exactly what he will say. But we do know this: It will, through no fault of the president's, almost certainly mean less than most past such pronouncements of his predecessors. Because you look on the role of the U.S., which once stood tall and powerful in the region, and we realize that like some of our longtime allies and some figures from history, the sands of time have taken a toll. It calls to mind Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images