Skip to main content

Barack Obama's play-it-safe approach

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
June 27, 2013 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Presidents can draw red lines to restrain others, or themselves
  • He says President Obama has set boundaries to prevent the taking of risks
  • Obama's approach to Syria, Iranian nuclear issue and Israeli peace process are similar, he says
  • Miller: Obama would like to hand off these problems to a President Hillary Clinton

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Presidents often draw red lines to contain the actions of adversaries, but no red lines are more important than the ones the president sets to contain himself.

In the Middle East, President Obama has drawn three: to limit the U.S. role in the Syrian civil war, to avoid risky concessions to the mullahs on the Iranian nuclear issue, and to avoid going to war with Israel on the peace process.

This play-it-safe strategy annoys and alarms Republicans, foreign policy gurus and even Bill Clinton.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

But it's perfect for a second term president whose real priorities lie at home and who is facing extremely hard choices abroad. Indeed, if the president has any strategy it's to avoid as much risk as possible and manage the U.S. role in a muddled Middle East as best he can.

Governing is about choosing, and Barack Obama has made his choices.

The once transformative president with the Nobel Peace Prize acted as if he thought he could change the world, at least in the Middle East.

Then reality intruded. Obama was ready enough to take risks in fighting terror and on national security issues. But he has grown increasingly risk-averse when it came to the truly complex challenges: Iran, Israel, and of course, Syria.

Here the sheer complexity and difficulty of the issues and his fear of failure has tempered the president's enthusiasm for serious engagement. The political risks of fighting with the Israelis on settlements or appeasing the Iranian regime on the nuclear issue took care of the rest.

Nor was the public pushing for big engagement abroad. If anything, Americans wanted an end to the roller-coaster foreign policy of the Bush 43 years and a focus on their economic travails. The people and their president were only too happy with a steady, and generally competent, foreign policy defined neither by spectacular successes nor spectacular failures.

So on Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama discovered the Goldilocks principle. And that meant identifying an approach that was neither too hot nor too cold; neither too bold, nor cautious -- a careful middle ground designed not so much to tackle foreign policy challenges as to avoid them.

On Syria, the president's latest move to offer lethal assistance to carefully vetted rebel groups is the least encumbering move he could have made. He's not going to unilaterally raise the stakes any time soon unless forced to by the Syrians, with, for example, a massive use of chemical weapons.

Indeed, his move to arm the rebels is designed neither to force the regime to the table nor to defeat it. There's just not enough military juice for that. The fact is Obama can slow walk this arm-and-train exercise for months.

On Iran, the election of the pragmatic cleric Hassan Rouhani may well open up new possibilities on the diplomatic front. But the president will be reluctant to test them if it means having to offer concessions on the issue of enrichment that go beyond what the P 5 plus 1 group negotiating with Iran (United States, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany) had offered, or making risky promises on sanctions relief.

The Iranian nuclear issue, like the Syrian crisis, will offer up no quick solutions or easy choices. Iran's role in supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the militarizing of the U.S. role there will only make the president's choices more difficult, reduce his flexibility and increase the need to stand tall and not show weakness. Rouhani or no Rouhani, the mistrust of the mullahs by the White House and Congress runs deep.

On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the president is likely to continue an approach of cautious management, not risky initiatives to resolve a conflict not suitable for a timely settlement.

Secretary of State John Kerry may yet succeed in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

But how to keep them there is another matter, let alone how to reach an agreement on the toughest issues like Jerusalem and refugees. If Kerry hasn't been told this directly, he's likely figured it out on his own: Don't create tensions with Netanyahu. In short, don't reset the reset that flowed from the president's reconciliation trip to Israel earlier this year.

Events beyond his control of course could cause Obama to violate his own red lines. to turn pink. He could be drawn deeper into Syria or into unanticipated diplomacy or conflict with Iran. But Obama's risk aversion runs pretty deep and has a powerful logic of its own.

Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue are long dramas, carry domestic political risks, and have very uncertain outcomes without clear upsides, particularly for a second-term president who believes his legacy rests on the domestic side.

This president will go to great lengths to avoid risky initiatives on both war and peace. Instead he'd prefer a process to manage these challenges as best he can.

In the end, he'd be quite happy to pass these headaches along to his successor. And it would be an exquisite irony if that person turned out to be his old rival and more recent friend -- his loyal Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who never really got a chance to deal with any of these challenges the first time around.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT