The Realist Prism: Asia Pivot to Suffer as Obama’s Attention Returns to Middle East

The Realist Prism: Asia Pivot to Suffer as Obama’s Attention Returns to Middle East

This week, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, President Barack Obama laid out a U.S. foreign policy agenda for the remainder of his term in office, with particular emphasis on finding a solution to the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program and making a lasting breakthrough in the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute. However, the overall focus of the address, with its emphasis on the centrality of the Middle East, is seemingly at odds with the direction articulated earlier in his administration, most notably by former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: the so-called pivot to Asia. It is hard to reconcile the vision laid out by the president in New York this past week with Donilon's contention that the United States has been "overweighted" in terms of its commitment of time and resources to the Middle East (.pdf).

Of course, it is entirely possible that Obama's address was meant to be aspirational—laying out objectives that he might want to see happen, but without any plans to make the concurrent commitment to realizing these goals. After all, the history of presidential rhetoric is replete with examples of calls for action that did not end up guiding the allocation of resources, funds or attention. George W. Bush, for instance, started his presidency with a call to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards the Western Hemisphere, but, with the notable example of Plan Colombia, this rebalancing did not occur.

One can also question whether Obama's U.N. address truly reflects the priorities of the national security apparatus. As we have seen with regard to Syria, the president has a track record of speaking "off the cuff" without fully consulting his advisers, first in setting down a red line for U.S. action in 2012 and then in deciding to turn to Congress for an authorization for the use of military force this past month. In some cases it has seemed that these policy statements came as surprises to even his most senior personnel, such as the secretary of state. But in the absence of any effort so far to walk back Obama's General Assembly comments or to "clarify" them, we must assume that they reflect the administration’s foreign policy priorities.

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