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Column: How Obama Found Himself Defending American Exceptionalism

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In a matter of weeks, talk of war has been replaced by the promise of diplomacy.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

Presidents rarely tell the world to put up or shut up. But that’s what his countrymen need to hear now. The core fact of American foreign policy is that the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have left most Americans utterly exasperated by war. The Iraq syndrome will prove to be far more traumatic than the Vietnam syndrome.

As it was, it took 16 years after the fall of Saigon before Americans were ready to see the United States lead a major military effort — George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. With Syria, Americans were called to an act of war even before U.S. troops were out of Afghanistan and less than two years after our armed forces were withdrawn from Iraq.

The public’s reluctance to support Obama’s effort to punish the Assad regime does not mean the American people want the United States to give up on its global role. But it was a cry for more time — and a demand that the case for American global responsibility be made afresh.

The problem does not extend to Asia and the Pacific, where many nations welcome the United States as a force for stability and prosperity. Obama’s “pivot” continues. But there is no escaping our commitments to the Middle East. In the wake of what Obama spoke of as our “hard-earned humility” after Iraq, the president is now trying to achieve through talks what the American people would prefer not to achieve through force.

As long as he was pulling out troops from old conflicts and dealing with terrorist threats through drone attacks and the deployment of Special Forces, Obama maintained popular support because his approach abroad kept the costs at home relatively low. Recent events have upset that arrangement.

The president’s U.N. speech suggests that he knows full well that the most vital negotiation he faces is not with Iran or Syria but with his fellow citizens. Thus the largest irony: Having pledged to end wars and focus on problems at home, Obama finds himself defending a robust American role around the globe — to other nations, yes, but above all to his own people.