MANAMA - Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) argued in public Saturday over whether the United States is still exerting leadership in Syria and around the Middle East region.
"For all the logical focus on pivots in other directions, the fact remains that the United States cannot afford to neglect what's at stake in the Middle East, a region in the midst of transformations every bit as profound and consequential as the changes that swept over Europe and Eurasia two decades ago," said Burns, the leader of the U.S. government delegation to the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue.
Burns told the assembled audience of officials and experts from 28 countries that the Obama administration's "pivot" or "rebalancing" toward Asia was not a zero-sum game and he said that American attention to the Middle East and the Gulf has not and will not diminish.
"It's a region today that is full of both threat and promise. It's a region that demands American leadership despite the pull of other challenges and the natural policy fatigue that comes after a decade in which our national security strategy was dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Sitting next to him on the panel, McCain said his frequent travels around the region had convinced him that all kinds of regional actors have concluded that America is receding in terms of leadership and commitments - and that perception has negative consequences.
"The idea that the U.S. can pivot away from the Middle East is the height of foolishness," said McCain. "This perception, that the United States is disinterested, disengaged, or distracted, can be very dangerous. It can lead to our enemies to test America's friends and allies in this region through even more threatening actions and it could bolster the more radical and hard line elements among our friends who say they must take matters into our own hands because America can't be trusted."
"I'll talk straight with you, it's difficult to convince the American people right now, both Republicans and Democrats, that we need to more in the world, not less," he said. "But we need greater leadership.'
Burns responded by saying that while there are limits to American influence, he was confident that over the long term, America's actions would convince countries in the Middle East that American leadership will continue.
"We don't have the luxury of pivoting in one direction and neglecting our interests in others. That's easy to say and the proof is in the actions we take. I think you'll continue to see from the United States very active engagement and very active leadership," he said. "There is no substitute for the ability and capacity of the US to articulate a vision and try to mobilize coaltitions of countries to achieve those aims."
McCain used the example of Syria to counter Burn's assertion that the regional perception of a lack of American leadership was unfounded.
"So many [regional leaders] want greater U.S. engagement and leadership in advance of the interests and values we share and unfortunately there is a visceral sense I get among the leaders in the region that they are not getting as much support from the United States as they desire," McCain said. "This is the perception in Syria, where everything that people said would happen if we did intervene has now happened because we have not intervened."
On Syria, Burns said that the balance of power on the ground is clearly shifting against the regime and that the Obama administration is considering additional ways the "can help speed the genuine transition of power," ideally through a political transition to new leadership based on the Geneva plan developed last summer.
"The longer the conflict in Syria continues, the greater the human tragedy for the Syrian people and the greater the danger of spillover into a neighborhood that already has more than its share of problems in security," said Burns.
McCain said the divide over whether to increase American activity and leadership abroad was not a partisan one, but rather a battle in Washington between internationalists and isolationists, both of which can be found in either party.
"I want to work with my Democrat colleagues, especially the president, to ensure this region can progress to the more hopeful and peaceful future that all of us seek," McCain said. "And if the president does the right thing, if he leads and takes greater actions to support our friends, interests, and values, in Syria, Libya, or anywhere else, he'll certainly have my support."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.