DENVER – Critics of America’s Middle East policies are reminiscent of Woody Allen’s quip in Annie Hall: “The food at this place is really terrible...and such small portions.” The United States is seen as the culprit behind many of the regions ills, and yet it is accused of not being sufficiently engaged, of “leading from behind,” of failing to support democracy, of abandoning its friends, and so on. Given all the accusations that the US faces for its involvement in the region over the decades, one would think that America would be invited to stay home.
But the region cries out for leadership, and the US remains the only country that can provide it. The problem for the US is not the divisions in the Middle East that it must understand and navigate better, but rather the divisions within the US that have eroded domestic consensus on many foreign-policy issues. Those internal differences are what have kept the US on the sidelines during the latest Middle East upheavals.
America used to have essentially two varieties of foreign-policy positions: realist and idealist. But today opinions are fragmented across a broad range of positions – a situation that also cries out for leadership.
President Barack Obama’s oft-stated view that “we need some nation building at home,” combined with his antiseptic waging of drone warfare, indicates that he is erring on the side of the isolationists of both the left and the right. Unilateralism, it seems, is fast becoming the isolationists’ internationalism.