It is the cruelest of ironies that President Barack Obama's legacy in the Middle East -- a signature issue for many U.S. presidents -- now lies in the hands of two of his most intractable adversaries: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It also probably doesn't make him sleep any easier that the third major player is a man with whom he has a famously dysfunctional relationship: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu.
It's cruel because saving Syria, resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace seem well beyond the president's capacity -- even if he boasted the support of willing and trusting partners. And it's ironic because Obama set out not to preside over catastrophes in the Middle East but to transform the region for the better. He now risks being the president on whose watch it all became so much worse.
Is this unhappy tale primarily Obama's fault? No. But on the four key issues that will likely define the president's legacy in this region, his critics have already reached a very different conclusion -- and history may too.
A regional order transformed
It was both Obama's luck and misfortune to have been president during a historic, once-in-a-century transformation of the Middle East. You don't get to be a doer of great deeds unless you're confronted with great events and are then able to help shape them (see: Lincoln, FDR).
Obama was lucky enough to have the first, but he couldn't -- his critics allege -- produce the second. Unlike the period from 1986 to 1992, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were perceived as proactive players in shaping events after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Obama may be seen as more the bystander.
The comparisons to the end of the Cold War are perhaps a bit unfair. The president was indeed on the right side of history in the early acts of the Arab Spring: He recognized the inevitability of the end of America's authoritarian friends in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen -- and to his credit, he was proactive in helping get rid of Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi.
But subsequent inattention in Libya and the Benghazi debacle, Obama's vacillation about how to deal with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, a hesitancy to speak out more forcefully against the Brothers' exclusivist and arbitrary policies in Egypt, and acquiescence to Saudi-backed repression in Bahrain raised doubts about whether he had indeed moved to the right side of history.
Yet the "who lost the Middle East?" debate is really a silly one -- the region was never Obama's to lose. America cannot dictate the course of events there, even if it wanted to. It was, after all, Arabs' ownership of their own politics that gave the Arab Spring its authenticity and legitimacy.
But the strange marriage of neocons and liberal interventionists has hammered home the theme that the president has lacked vision, leadership, and strength in responding to these historic transformations. Where was the appointment of the "super envoy" to oversee America's strategy toward the Arab Spring, the task forces to monitor regional developments around the clock, and the strategic use of incentives and disincentives to reinforce positive change and lay down markers in the face of negative behavior? Or was it all just too much -- too fast and furious to keep track of?
Had the Arab Spring moved in the right direction, Obama would have been hailed as a strategic genius for his smart, low-cost management from the sidelines. Sadly, it has moved the other way -- toward instability, violence, and dashed hopes. As a result, what people saw -- certainly those in the Middle East, where it's easy to blame somebody else for your troubles -- is a president who became strangely disconnected and who at best just seemed to have other things to do. At worst, he seemed to have simply stopped caring.