Fred Hiatt: No escape from the Middle East

10/09/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2012 5:42 PM

Before President Obama could turn to the regions and issues he believed should be foreign policy priorities in his first term, he felt he had to clean up the mess his predecessor had bequeathed him in the Middle East and Central Asia.

If re-elected, he may confront a similar frustration in his second term.

Consider a few of the developments in that arc of conflict since his administration announced in 2011 an implicit downgrade of the importance of the region and a foreign policy “pivot” to Asia.

A U.S. ambassador has been killed for the first time in more than two decades, in Libya, and weapons and fighters leaking out of that North African nation have fueled an al-Qaida renaissance to the south. The United States has had to abandon its presence in Benghazi, the city whose population Obama once boasted of saving.

Civil war has consumed Syria, claiming more than 30,000 lives, many of them women and children, and displacing more than a million. The fighting is a magnet for Islamist extremists and a spur to Sunni-Shiite rivalries and Kurdish aspirations that are destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

Israel’s most important relationships in the region, its cold peace with Egypt and its once warmer friendship with Turkey, are deteriorating. Israeli-Palestinian peace seems more remote than ever, while a promised reconciliation between the divided halves of Palestinian territory has stalled.

September was the deadliest month in two years in Iraq as bombings and sectarian fighting set back a country that had been in recovery.

In Afghanistan, U.S. officials have given up on a key goal of their withdrawal strategy, a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, the New York Times reported. More than 50 U.S. troops have been killed this year by supposed allies in the Afghan army and police. These demoralizing insider attacks could prompt the allies to retreat even earlier than planned, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Guardian.

Negotiations with Iran have come to a standstill as that country accelerates its nuclear development program, racing toward a weapons capability that Obama has declared unacceptable.

Relations with a nuclear-capable, unstable Pakistan are rockier than ever.

Obama wasn’t wrong in wanting to shift U.S. attention and resources to the Pacific. Compare the economic dynamism of Indonesia, Singapore or Korea with Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia, and you understand the logic. As China grows more assertive, its neighbors want a dependable, if discreet, U.S. presence.

But the world’s indispensable nation, as Obama has called the United States, doesn’t always get to choose its areas of concern. The president likes to say that “the tide of war is receding,” but saying so doesn’t make it so, and withdrawing America from the field of battle doesn’t necessarily end a war.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a wake-up call, and not only to the dangers of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. A crucial arc of the world is unstable as one of the world’s great religions debates how and whether to accommodate to globalization and international norms of human rights. This isn’t America’s struggle, but it is a struggle America can’t ignore.

That doesn’t mean the United States needs to send troops into conflict, as Obama believed President George W. Bush did too readily. But when opportunities arise, the United States needs to be ready – to support democrats in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia, for example, or to help the Syrian opposition organize and equip itself. If the stakes in Afghanistan are worth sending U.S. troops into battle, as Obama proclaimed, then those troops should be fighting toward a goal, not a timeline.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney blames Obama for all the troubles in the region, just as Obama blamed Bush. In truth, every president will be at the mercy of events to some extent, no matter how prescient his foreign policy.

But Obama too often has left the United States on the sidelines. “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he tells Americans, who understandably are receptive to that message. No doubt he’d like to focus a second term on domestic recovery and on foreign policy challenges he finds congenial: nuclear arms talks with Russia, say, as well as the pivot to Asia.

But recent events suggest that the next president, whether Romney or Obama, will get drawn into messy, difficult dilemmas in the Middle East and Central Asia. The longer a president holds America back from its expected role as leader and shaper of events, the messier the dilemmas will be.

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