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Obamamandias: the great shrinking superpower in the Middle East

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

David Rothkopf

Vuja De in Pakistan and Déjà vu in Israel

Sometimes you pick up the paper and feel like you are reading yesterday's news.  And sometimes you pick it up and feel like you are reading tomorrow's.

I had that crystal ball vibe when I was slipping and sliding through the New York Times this morning on my iPad.  Three stories came in rapid succession.

In the first, there was Jane Perlez' "Meeting with Pakistani Leaders, Kerry Seeks to Ease Anger Over Bin Laden Raid."  While Perlez has been among the very best reporters from the front-lines of America's war with Pakistan -- a war that goes beyond being undeclared to being denied outright -- in this case she was playing the role of providing campaign coverage.  Because Kerry's trip to Pakistan is seen by many in official Washington as an unmistakable whistle stop in his campaign to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she departs Foggy Bottom, presumably toward the end of next year.

Kerry was depicted in a picture shaking hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani and in the story as trying to ease tensions between the U.S. and our nominal ally.  That Kerry was there and Secretary Clinton's planned trip was cancelled added to the sense of what an old friend from New Jersey (who knew not a word of French) used to call "vuja de": that eerie feeling you get that when you see something and think, "hey, I've never seen that before...but I've got the sense I might again soon."

One got the same feeling from two other stories that appeared in the same edition of the paper.  One was Salman Masood's "Pakistan and NATO Trade Fire Near Afghan Border."  The other was Sharon LaFraniere's "Pakistan's Prime Minister Visits China." 

In the first of these two was found the report of the exchange of fire between Pakistani ground troops and two NATO helicopters that entered Pakistani airspace.  Two Pakistani soldiers were reportedly wounded in this battle that may be written off today as a misunderstanding but face it, to paraphrase former Senator Everett Dirksen, a misunderstanding here, a misunderstanding there, pretty soon it all adds up to a harbinger of great looming problems to come.

The second of the two reports featured the peripatetic Gilani in Beijing saying, "We are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend."  Ouch.  I wonder which not-so-best and not-so-trusted friend was meant to hear that and cringe.  (The older I get the harder it is for me to see top level international relations as being much different from high school social politics.  The stakes are higher.  But beyond that and the odd spy satellite or stray SEAL team, you've got a similar tone, pettiness and posturing, common use of Twittering or Facebooking or Wikileaking, and tactics so generally ham-fisted and unsophisticated that it's my sense that someone with the relative strategic brilliance and wit of say, Santana from "Glee", could become the Metternich of our age if she put her mind to it.)

The Chinese, of course, played the game as they often do at a much higher level than everyone else.  They welcome Gilani, took his side to the extent that they admonished the U.S. for the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and stayed at an arm's length from an official alliance.  They have a counter-weight to India and the U.S. in the region and a friend that could be helpful in ensuring their access to the oil of the Middle East. 

Reading the stories together, I couldn't help but think that we could be seeing not only America's next Secretary of State dealing with issues that may consume the Obama Administration in its second term, but also major powers positioning themselves regarding what could be the foremost global flashpoint of the next decade or two.

In fact, seeing these stories and then reading reports of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's elaboration of his guidelines for proceeding with peace talks with the Palestinians, I couldn't help but see starkly the differences between vuja de and déjà vu.  One was old hat, more or less than same old approaches to a problem of the last half century that was on the verge of entering a new phase whether Netanyahu was or not.  The other stories gave the sense of stars realigning. 

It will be interesting to see how much President Obama's upcoming speech on the Middle East focuses on the future and emerging issues of the region and to what extent it becomes bogged down in the issues, rhetoric and approaches of generations past.