"The tide of war is receding," President Obama likes to say about the Middle East but, as the events of recent days make clear, the tide of war is actually rising – at least partly because it's the United States that's receding.
Yes, the United States remains engaged in the region. The president and his dogged secretary of state, John Kerry, are pursuing a permanent nuclear deal with Iran as well as permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Nevertheless, Obama's regional policy rests on a fundamental premise – that with the United States facing growing budget challenges and domestic needs, the nation and world will both benefit if America reduces its muscular footprint, shares burdens with its allies and seeks deals with its adversaries.
So, Obama loosens the carefully constructed economic straightjacket on Iran in the unlikely hope of reciprocal cooperation, averts military action in Syria despite its red-line crossing on chemical weapons, invites Russia to raise its regional profile despite Vladimir Putin's support for Syria's Bashar Assad, leaves Iraq wholeheartedly despite the years of sacrifice by U.S. troops and jousts with Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai over the terms of a continuing U.S. presence in that troubled land.
But, in his zest to avoid military action in Iran or Syria, his hope to reduce the U.S. regional footprint, and his desire for allies and adversaries to step up while the United States steps back, the president apparently doesn't buy the insights that his former secretary of state enunciated as she departed nearly a year ago.
"Let me underscore the importance of the United States continuing to lead in the Middle East, North Africa and around the world," Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late January of 2013. "When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer and our security at home is threatened."
Syria, where Obama has steadfastly refused to interfere as Assad met the initially peaceful protests of early 2011 with horrific violence, is now a hotbed of blood-letting between government troops as assisted by Iran and Hezbollah, al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists who have poured into the country and more moderate forces.
Predictably, the chaos has crossed Syria's border. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists are fighting a proxy war – with Hezbollah seemingly behind a car bombing that killed a prominent critic and al Qaeda terrorists responding with a car bomb in a Hezbollah stronghold. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is smuggling advanced missiles into Lebanon for later use against Israel, which had attacked arms shipments to Hezbollah into Iraq from the air. A country that was riven by civil war from 1975 to 1990 fears a return to serial bloody chaos.
In Iraq, meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is battling al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in Anbar Province, where U.S. troops suffered hundreds of deaths before turning the tide in the aftermath of President Bush's 2007 troop surge. Local Sunni chiefs, who back then had worked closely with U.S. forces, are now split between Maliki's unpopular government and the Sunni extremists who seek to topple it. U.S. officials express grave concern about the course of events, which could threaten Maliki's government and even presage a Syria-style civil war, but they rule out a return of U.S. troops.
With America standing back from the ever-growing chaos, Iran (a Shiite theocracy) and Saudi Arabia (a Sunni monarchy) compete fiercely to fill the void, each seeking regional supremacy and each providing arms and money to their allies in the cross-cutting conflicts.
"[T]he bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilizing," the New York Times wrote starkly, "the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region's sectarian hatreds."
At this point, the United States lacks good options in any of these hotspots. The question is whether, by fleeing Iraq and sidestepping Syria, America has helped empower terrorist forces to practice their craft and create safe havens in those countries, raising long-term threats to U.S. national security.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of "Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion." Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.