WASHINGTON — President Obama surely didn’t want to offer his commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a day dominated by rumors of war. An armed conflict with the Syrian government, even of limited duration, was never part of Obama’s dream.
In a way, the very fact that our first African-American commander in chief had other things on his mind as he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial could itself be taken as a triumph. Obama is president of all the American people. He carries burdens and responsibilities no different from those borne by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson or George W. Bush.
But for a president who has reflected the national mood by insisting repeatedly that it is time for “nation-building at home,” the prospect of a new Middle East engagement flies in the face of how he had envisioned his stewardship of foreign affairs.
He was elected, after all, on the basis of a firm pledge to withdraw our troops from Iraq, which he has done. He is winding down the presence of our armed forces in Afghanistan. In the battle against terrorism, he has concentrated on targeted attacks against dangerous individuals and their cells.
His hope is still for a turn in our approach to the world toward the rising powers of Asia, and for a renovated American economy, economic strength being the ultimate source of the country’s clout in the world.
As an outline for an appropriate set of objectives, the president’s strategy still makes sense. Viewed in retrospect, it’s hard not see the Iraq war as a mistake that squandered American resources, strengthened Iran strategically, and put the military — and our men and women in uniform — under excruciating pressure. The Middle East should never have loomed as large in our calculations as it did. While the American commitment to Israel’s security will always be a central part of our foreign policy, the welcomed decline of our dependence on Middle East oil makes the pivot elsewhere that Obama is trying to execute somewhat easier.
In the meantime, moving the country toward higher levels of growth and widely shared prosperity is a precondition for any kind of long-term influence in the world.