Edward Luttwak has a brief piece at Foreign Policy
in which he praises the restraint with which the Obama administration has approached the ongoing conflict in Syria. Luttwak argues that the importance of managing China’s rise means that the US should get out of the business of determining the nature of political regimes in the Middle East:
The United States has other new responsibilities: To respond effectively to a rising China, it is essential to disengage from the futile pursuit of stability in North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Their endless crises capture far too much policy attention and generate pressures for extremely costly military interventions that increase rather than reduce terrorist violence.
In other words, Luttwak is calling for the US to focus on a strategic goal that it has proved capable of pursuing in the past: preventing the emergence of a hegemon on the Eurasian landmass, using a mix of alliances, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, deterrence, and, if necessary, war. As Luttwak notes, pursuing this goal in the face of a rising China is trickier in the past, not least because of economic interdependence and the degree to which China — at least until relatively recently — has avoided the naked aggression of rising powers of the past, and therefore requires nuance, subtlety, and Washington’s full attention.
Of course, even without the need to get Asia’s future right, there’s a good argument for the US government’s being less involved in the makeup of Middle Eastern governments: even before Iraq, the US did not exactly have the best record when it came to picking and supporting Middle Eastern regimes.
The problem, however, is neither restraint nor strategic prioritization seem to have much purchase in American elite discourse. As Salon
‘s Alex Pareene noted
in the midst of North Korea’s saber rattling last month:
Making matters worse is that our political press frequently moonlights as our foreign affairs press. And that press thrives on partisan conflict and has an innate bias in favor of “action.” (Every Sunday show features a foreign policy panel in which multiple participants inevitably agree that America needs to “do something” about the situation in some other country. “Do something” is always considered sound, serious advice.)
Because the default position whenever anything happens anywhere for many American foreign policy and media elites is “do something,” it becomes exceedingly difficult for an administration to exercise restraint without appearing weak. So the real question is whether the US can break some of the bad habits of the unipolar ’90s, when many elites convinced themselves that the US could be everywhere and solve every problem. By refraining from armed intervention in Syria (thus far), the Obama administration has at least taken a step in the right direction.
The pivot to Asia cannot just mean shifting resources and personnel. It can only work if it is accompanied by self-restraint and discipline, which means resisting the urge to solve any problem that arises somewhere in the world, no matter how thorny.