It’s difficult to recommend a new approach to the Greater Middle East when the overarching philosophy of Barack Obama’s first term lingers on. In 2008 the Illinois senator sincerely believed that the United States was disliked in Muslim lands primarily because of George W. Bush, American aggressiveness, and Israeli right-wingers. He was convinced that as president he could reset America’s image because he had, in his own words, the “credibility of someone who lived in a Muslim country for four years” as a child and thus had “a sense of that culture that…[would allow him] to more effectively bring about the kinds of cooperation that we need to go after terrorists and isolate them and bring the Muslim world together with the Western world to pursue the kinds of strategies that make everyone prosperous.”
Mr. Obama wanted the United States to do less (minus the drones) and thus be liked more. The president’s attempted engagement in 2009 of Ali Khameneh’i, the Iran’s supreme leader, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Alawite dictator, naturally followed. So, too, his coolness towards Israel and the quiet awkwardness during the enormous pro-democracy street demonstrations in Tehran in the summer of 2009 and the Tahrir pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo in 2011. This less-is-more leftwing cautiousness also gave us the president’s last-minute decision to follow French president Nicolas Sarkozy into Libya, but do next to nothing in country once Muammar Qadhafi fell. It lies behind the president’s continuing resistance to intervening in Syria, and his firm plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.