Forget followers, America is missing its traditional partners in the Middle East. We can't even decide whether Egypt -- previously America's most important Arab partner -- is an ally or an adversary. Even our friends -- the Israelis and Saudis -- wonder how reliable we'll be on issues critical to them, like Iran and Bahrain.
In this region, you really can't function effectively unless the locals are willing to cooperate in matters of war and peace. And even under the best of circumstances, small powers will seek to exploit bigger ones, and enlist us to advance their narrower agendas. Those agendas may include sectarian dominance (see: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), padding the family coffers (see: Afghan President Hamid Karzai), countering local rivals (see: Pakistan's intelligence services), using U.S. funds to advance policies contrary to American interests, like settlements in the West Bank (see: every Israeli government).
Usually, America gets played in this exchange. It's not the first time: The Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers who believed wrongly they could impose their will on these smaller powers. And as the latest great power, our track record in matters of war and peacemaking really isn't very good.
American influence in the Middle East may well be at an all-time low. Whether it's Syria, the peace process, or Iran, we don't have the local horses required to get a deal to stick. And we can't protect our interests without them. We're also dealing with a variety of regional and non-regional actors that are actively pulling the other way: Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are bucking up Assad. And through their support for the Syrian regime, they may well prove that there are indeed second acts in Middle Eastern politics.
2. Leaders need opportunity
We have a ridiculously cardboard -- even cartoonish -- view of leadership. The great leader acts, wills this or that his or her way, and everything else falls into place.
Wrong. It's always been the crisis -- whether it's Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem or Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait -- that sets the stage for smart and determined leaders to act.
The Middle East has plenty of crises. But these are slow, complex bleeds -- historic conflicts not ready for resolution, nation-building enterprises among ethnic and sectarian groups too busy trying to get a leg up on their rivals to worry about reaching truly national solutions.
Indeed, the Middle East today offers up only varying degrees of risk and traps, none of which are material for presidential glory and dramatic action.
3. Leaders need clarity
The leadership groupies want U.S. policies based on clarity, consistency, and finality in a region that rarely if ever offers it up. They'd have you believe that everything is so simple: Back the rebels and defeat Assad. What could be simpler?
And yet, the Middle East is a muddle. Syria isn't quite the morality play that some would have it. Assad is the evil dictator, to be sure -- but the opposition isn't exactly a bunch of secular democrats.
Nor does America call the shots. There are Russians, Iranians, and Lebanese Shiites who play the game too. And two years in, the United States may well find itself in the extraordinary position -- after repeated calls for Assad's end -- of accepting a negotiated transition. If that comes to pass, Assad would likely remain beyond the reach of an international war crimes tribunal. And who knows? He could even still be a resident in Syria.