A superb speech this morning at the Lowy Institute from Ambassador Martin Indyk, Director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and a former US Ambassador to Israel. We'll have audio and video soon, but I wanted to give you a few highlights. These are my impressions of the speech, and I might have to revise them when I see the transcript, but I thought some of what he said was pretty dramatic and worth putting down at once.
I should explain my headline. The 'Corleone moment' is my characterisation of what Indyk said about Obama's instincts.
The only memorable line in the otherwise forgettable Godfather III is Michael Corleone's lament that, try as he might, he can't leave the mob business behind: 'just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in'. Likewise, according to Indyk, Obama's plan is to end America's involvement in the Middle East 'great game' by ending two wars and stepping back from America's central role in the Middle East peace process.
Obama has abandoned the policy of successive US administrations since the 1991 Gulf War to establish a Pax Americana in the Middle East and has pivoted to the Asia Pacific. The fact that America is coming close to energy self-sufficiency during Obama's term makes this move easier. The most dramatic demonstration of how far the Middle East has slipped in US priorities, according to Indyk, is the fact that Washington has allowed Baghdad to fall into Tehran's sphere of influence.
And yet, the Middle East keeps pulling America back in. Syria and Iran are particularly troubling, and Indyk indicated that both will get worse. But he also framed Obama Administration policy to those two countries within the context of the pivot from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific and Obama's larger global priorities. For instance, if you look carefully at Obama's remarks about Iran's nuclear capability, said Indyk, you will see that he refers to it primarily as a threat to the non-proliferation regime; he rarely talks about an Iranian nuclear capacity in regional terms. The same is true of Obama's attitude to Syria's chemical weapons.
On Syria, Indyk urged the audience to pay attention to Secretary of State John Kerry's upcoming trip to Moscow. The Syrian conflict is reaching a point where the costs of staying out will outweigh those of getting more involved, so America is preparing to act. But as with Libya, Obama wants to 'lead from behind', so the best-case scenario is for the US and Russia to jointly lead a UN intervention. He also foresees the US providing more intelligence and training to the anti-Assad forces, the establishment of a no-fly zone over the country to suppress Syrian government air power, and more arms supplies for the rebels (though not from the US).