Here are five observations about President Obama’s frustrating and largely hapless encounter with the Middle East:
1) Inaction has its consequences, just as action has its consequences;
2) Just because you’re not interested in the Middle East doesn’t mean the Middle East isn’t interested in you;
3) Chaos and collapse in the Middle East cannot be solely, or even (perhaps) mainly, attributed to the mistaken or ill-conceived ideas, goals, speeches, and strategies of American presidents;
4) Obama, more than other presidents, gets no credit for his concrete accomplishments in the Middle East;
5) Obama’s presidency will be judged a failure in the realm of national security if al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups are still able to maintain significant safe havens across the greater Middle East when he leaves the White House in January of 2017, and if Iran remains on a path to the nuclear threshold.
I’m sure you’re fascinated by Observation Number Five in particular, but I also know that you are asking yourselves, “Just what are the concrete accomplishments of which you speak?” Washington has reached a consensus view that Obama has been hesitant, contradictory, and flinching on a range of issues related to the Middle East. It is true that his rhetoric has not often matched his strategy (see Peter Baker’s story on the disconnect between some of Obama's reassuring statements on the Middle East and the dispiriting reality of the place, and Richard Haass’s comments on Administration promises); it is true that early reports suggest that the strategy he is unveiling to counter ISIS seems limited and evolutionary; and it also true, as Ron Fournier, and others, note, that Obama has a tendency to tell America’s enemies what he won’t do to them, rather than what he will do.