Last week, I interviewed U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon on GPS. Much of our conversation focused on the Middle East.
I got the sense from Donilon that the Obama Administration is more realist than people are willing to acknowledge. While President Obama’s heart is with the Arab Spring, he is somebody who is very careful in his commitment of American power and very measured in the use of that power.
President Obama sees trends like democratization and liberalization as long-term processes.
Here’s how that vision is playing out in U.S. policy toward the region:
What struck me about U.S. policy toward Libya is that it is a carefully calculated, incremental policy. The U.S. has adopted a policy that is trying to achieve its results but is very conscious of the costs.
There is a determination to put the screws on Moammar Gadhafi - to set out a goal that he eventually must leave - but to do so in a way that does not excessively commit America power or prestige. President Obama wants to ensure that we don’t end up owning Libya. It is a policy designed more to ensure against bad outcomes than to take big gambles in the hope of good outcomes.
You see a similar approach in Syria. The Administration is attempting to ratchet up the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad without calling for his ouster. This is presumably because of a fear of what might follow: potentially chaos and civil war in Syria that could create conditions where people start expecting international humanitarian intervention.
This feels to me like a policy for the long-run. Again, it is an incremental policy.
The administration seems fairly comfortable with this policy. They are not itching to present a historic interventionist policy on the Arab Spring. They are comfortable tightening the screws, ratcheting up the pressure and waiting.
In our interview, Tom Donilon signaled that the United States values its alliance with Saudi Arabia and would not do anything to destabilize the regime unless there were completely unforeseen events. He praised the Saudi regime for liberalizing and said countries have to change at their own pace. The Administration does not want to put itself in the position where it's openly calling for regime change.
I think it was striking how open Tom Donilon was about the U.S. making overtures to Iran. Those overtures were rebuffed.
Now the Administration is on the track of increasing pressure on Iran, but Donilon did hold out the possibility that if the Iranians changed their minds, the offer was still on the table.
This was interesting because a number of people have said you should not negotiate with this regime because it would give it credibility.
I think Donilon was saying that if the Iranians were willing to make a deal on the nuclear issue, that was important enough that it would be worth doing – it would solve a huge festering problem. But in any case it’s highly unlikely the Iranians would take Donilon up on the offer.
I think this is an appropriately practical approach.
There is a certain kind of pleasure that American presidents have gotten from standing on the podium and issuing ringing declarations.
I think Obama believes in those ideas and ideals, but he also understands that the practical task of achieving them is more complex and more long-term and that open-ended commitments of American power and prestige in these situations can have very expensive consequences.