WASHINGTON - On June 10, 2014, President Obama said that the greatest frustration of his presidency was the failure to pass gun control legislation. It was the same day that Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a radical splinter of al-Qaida. The next day, Tikrit was taken by the militants, who are now preparing for the battle of Baghdad. These gains followed months of ISIS conquests in western Syria, lending reality to the previously absurd pretentions of the group's name.
For an American president, the world is a banquet of frustrations. But the collapse of much of the Middle East into civil war, sectarian conflict, war crimes and terrorist-exploited chaos should rank higher on the list. In Syria, 6.5 million are internally displaced by a multisided war that has featured civilian bombings, torture, forced hunger and poison gas attacks; more than 2.8 million have fled the country; more than 9 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Perhaps a third of Lebanon's population consists of refugees. And Syria's Sunni insurgency has spilled into Iraq, gaining momentum by exploiting local grievances.
In this light, it is worth rereading Obama's May 28 West Point commencement address. America's departure from Iraq without a status-of-forces agreement was offered as an (attempted) applause line. On Syria, Obama claimed credit for refusing to "put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war" - resisting a blunder that no one had recommended. He talked of decimating "core al-Qaida," while non-core al-Qaida was taking cities in Syria. He vaguely promised to "ramp up" support for the Syrian opposition, which has come to regard such promises as worthless. He proposed a new "Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund" - an executive action in the category of bringing a knife to a regional conflagration.
As of his West Point speech, Obama believed he had gotten his Middle Eastern policy just about right. He employed it as a model of restraint. "The president has tended to see Syria as a beckoning morass, "the bottom of the proverbial slippery slope," says Ambassador Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council. "He has thought that by holding Syria at arm's-length he could avoid being drawn into something difficult and complicated."
But risk aversion, it turns out, can multiply complication. Because America refused to coordinate an effort to arm the responsible opposition in Syria, there has been no pressure for the regime to engage in serious peace negotiations. Bashar al-Assad has found barrel bombs more effective. In Geneva talks last November, American officials were left with no plan except to (pathetically) hope for Russian and Iranian diplomatic favors, which never came. Countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states, left leaderless in the region, have often funneled support to radicals. America has supplied weapons to the Iraqi government to fight militants in western Iraq while (incoherently) refusing to arm people fighting the same enemy 100 miles to the west in Syria. Now a few thousand militants, with roots in the Syrian conflict, threaten to destroy the Iraqi government, along with the remnants of American credibility in the region.
This should be the end of illusions. Sometimes risk aversion can be a very risky option. The mere containment of Syrian chaos would have required a more activist American policy - coordinating Middle Eastern and European powers to create a balance of forces on the ground that might have encouraged a power-sharing agreement between less horrible regime elements and less horrible opposition groups. Some variant is still Syria's best (but fading) hope.
Outside the administration, the unsentimental have sometimes argued that it is not a bad outcome for Assad's forces and the Sunni Islamists to kill each other in a stalemate. Apart from being immoral - content with the slaughter of civilians - this also turns out to be stupid. It is only a stalemate until a new crop of battle-hardened extremists are produced who unravel neighboring countries or board planes to destinations unknown.
Within the administration, Hof suspects that "a major course correction is under consideration now, although I worry whether or not it would result in an effort sizable enough to make a difference on the ground." After years of defining staying out of the Middle East as success, this may now involve saving the Iraqi government, actively coordinating support to the Syrian opposition and bolstering state institutions in Lebanon and other highly stressed countries.
President Obama has shown no appetite or aptitude for this role - but refusing it now would be a massive failure.