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Monday, December 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s foreign policy now seems to be defined by a series of ironies.

Having pledged to pivot from an emphasis on the Middle East to a focus on Asia, he has announced that the two large public initiatives of his closing years will involve Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Having begun as a foreign policy realist, he found himself at the United Nations on Tuesday defending U.S. global commitments in the name of an idealistic American exceptionalism.

The last month has subjected Obama’s international strategy to turbulent tests and his performance drew the most sharply negative reviews of his presidency. His foreign policy ratings took a tumble. The Economist magazine splashed the provocative words “The weakened West” across the cover of a recent issue.

On Syria, the president (rightly in my view) proposed military action in response to a violation of his red line against chemical weapons. But he failed to prepare the public for his move and was left facing a bipartisan rebuke in Congress. He was rescued only by a Russian diplomatic initiative that the president’s allies insist was the product of the administration’s own groundwork.

In the meantime, years of very tough sanctions that left Iran’s economy in shambles and altered the country’s internal balance of political power have opened an opportunity for negotiations over curbing Tehran’s nuclear program and creating a new relationship between longtime adversaries.

In a matter of weeks, talk of war has been replaced by the promise of diplomacy. What happened?

There was an important clue in Obama’s U.N. speech when he expressed the impatience of the American people over the world’s ambivalence about U.S. power. Americans, he said, were tired of being criticized simultaneously for meddling too much and for engaging too little, especially in the Middle East.

“The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or take on every problem in the region as its own,” he said. “The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”