The fashionable criticism is that Obama does not have a consistent policy toward the Arab Spring. But should he? There are vast differences between the circumstances in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia; American interests in those countries; and our capacity to influence events there. Take the case where American interests and values most starkly collide, Saudi Arabia. Were the administration to start clamoring for regime change in Riyadh, and were that to encourage large-scale protests (and thus instability) in the kingdom, the price of oil would skyrocket. The United States and much of the developed world would almost certainly drop into a second recession. Meanwhile, the Saudi regime, which has legitimacy, power and lots of cash that it is spending, would likely endure — only now it would be enraged at Washington. What exactly would a more “consistent” Middle Eastern policy achieve?…

In all these cases, what marks administration policy is a careful calculation of costs and benefits. The great temptation of modern American foreign policy, from Versailles to Vietnam to Iraq, has been to make grand declarations — enunciate doctrines — that then produce huge commitments and costs. We are coming off a decade of such rhetoric and interventions and are still paying the price: more than $2 trillion, not to mention the massive cost in human lives. In that context, a foreign policy that emphasizes strategic restraint is appropriate and wise.