US foreign policy at a crossroads, looking forward and back

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Earlier this year, President Obama made two trips abroad that in many ways sum up the hope and disappointments of his administration’s foreign policy. The first was a January visit to India, where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi; the second, later that month, was to Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with King Salman on the latter’s accession to the throne following the death of his half-brother, Abdullah.

Any American president would surely have traveled to Riyadh in the wake of Abdullah’s death. After all, Saudi Arabia has been a close regional partner of the United States for decades; Abdullah, as crown prince and later king, had long been an important interlocutor as we formulated Middle East policy. But the visit to Saudi Arabia was more than just a ceremonial call on a traditional ally. It was also a clear signal of the importance — indeed centrality — of the kingdom to our ongoing struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Obama surely did not want his tenure marked by yet another war in the Middle East. He had, after all, won the Democratic nomination in large part because of his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops in 2011, Obama seized every opportunity to trumpet the departure as a major foreign policy achievement. Then the sudden rise of ISIS forced him to do precisely what he most wanted to avoid: yet another military commitment in the Middle East — much more modest, perhaps, than the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but nonetheless substantial enough to raise fears of a quagmire.

{mosads}But Obama’s disappointment with recent developments in the Middle East is not just a matter of political embarrassment. His desire to end our military involvement in Iraq was part of a broader strategic vision: one that would see a shift in our military and diplomatic emphasis farther east — not just to China, but to the whole region, including India, that other Asian giant. The reasons: the growing importance of Asia to the global and U.S. economies and, just as important, the new challenges raised by China’s emergence as a world power.

In many ways, the visit to Saudi Arabia was visible testimony of the frustrations of U.S. policy in the Middle East — a failure that transcends Obama’s time in office. Two times in the last 25 years, we have gone to war in the Persian Gulf in the hopes of creating a regional stability conducive to our national interests. Yet here we are in 2015, ensnared again in a conflict that both drains our material resources and consumes the attention of our senior policymakers. At only modest exaggeration, the Middle East is a nightmare from which U.S. foreign policy seems incapable of waking. Much as we would like to disentangle ourselves from a mess for which we ourselves bear at least some responsibility, we find ourselves trapped by the past.

Obama’s trip to India, in contrast, looked forward, not back. India is an important country by any definition: Its population is huge. Its economy possesses vast potential. It has a nuclear arsenal. Its conventional military is by some margin the most powerful in South Asia. It has, since independence, sustained a rough-and-tumble but resilient democratic political system. And, not least, it has long cultivated a sense of national greatness. Under Modi’s dynamic leadership, India is likely to become even more consequential.

India’s rise creates substantial opportunities for U.S. foreign policy. It holds open the promise of closer economic and political cooperation on a range of issues, from trade to climate change to security in Afghanistan. Closer Indo-U.S. cooperation will also be critical as we manage the uncertainties of China’s own emergence as a major geopolitical player. It is clearly too early to resign ourselves to a policy of “containing” China. But we must be prepared to hedge our strategic bets against the possibility of rising Sino-U.S. tensions in the future. India is an obvious partner — if not formal ally — in any effort to balance a more expansive Chinese foreign policy.

What of that graveyard of U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East? The idea that some theoretical strategy exists by which we are somehow going to “solve” the problems of the region is not just far-fetched; It is dangerous. Our most ambitious effort to reshape the Middle East — our invasion of Iraq in 2003 — should have been a salutary lesson in the risks of hubris. Unfortunately, it is a lesson that those who, in the Congress and elsewhere, call for ever deeper involvement in Iraq and Syria seem not to have learned. Perhaps the best we can do in the Middle East is to “muddle through” by managing threats rather than eradicating them and by avoiding open-ended commitments that both constrain our options and risk counterproductive blowback.

But — though it is hard to remember sometimes — there is more to U.S. foreign policy than addressing today’s crisis in the Middle East (or even, for that matter, Ukraine.) The world’s economic and geopolitical center of gravity is shifting inexorably toward the East. Obama’s visit to India symbolized a U.S. recognition of this historic transformation. Whether we can meet the challenges created by Asia’s emergence is another question altogether. Under the best of circumstances, the United States will require strategic imagination and deft diplomacy as we refocus our priorities toward East and South Asia. Meanwhile, we remain stuck in the Middle East, a region where we appear tragically unable either to exit or to win anything but transitory victories.

Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Research Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Tags China Foreign policy of the United States India Iraq King Abdullah King Salman Narendra Modi Saudi Arabia Syria

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