Was President Obama wrong to avoid intervention in the Syrian Civil War? Was he wrong to seek escape from Iraq and to hesitate to commit American forces to the war against ISIS? These questions matter on several levels. For one thing, there are an awful lot of dead people, no? Could the huge death toll of the Syrian Civil War been avoided, to say nothing of the Western hostages butchered, and the Jordanian pilot burned to death, and the Yazidis murdered, and the Iraqi soldiers massacred after surrender?
For another thing, we’re in the death throes of an American presidential election. The aspiring successors to President Obama both criticize his eight years of restraint. Recently, a gaggle of American diplomats used the free-speech channel at the State Department to dissent from administration policies, and current-Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged their viewpoints. Whoever wins the election in November 2016, the United States is likely to be blowing up things on a grand scale soon afterward.
Lonely voices defend the president. To the surprise of no one who has spent time studying the history of international relations, countries define for themselves and then pursue their individual interests. Sunni and Shi’a Islam are now engaged in a great civil war in the Middle East and elsewhere. As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn, so there is a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. It’s a tricky business. In any event, Iran backs the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and the Alawite minority in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, and the government in Yemen, and does nothing very evident to oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Neither country will bend before American will.
Then, Americans often believe that the course of events is determined by Americans. For the Right this often means that the United States must just “stand firm” in a Viagraesque way. For the Left, this means that the United States, usually at the behest of big business, picks the winners in foreign social conflicts. Neither interpretation could be further from the truth. The domestic balance of forces determines the outcomes of conflicts. The United States merely accommodates itself to the de facto government. In the case of the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s initial idealism soon got short-circuited by reality. In similar fashion, his idealism, and the foolishness of Hillary Clinton, led to a disastrous intervention in Libya. On the core issues, however—Syria, Iraq, Iran—President Obama has been reluctant to intervene in foreign civil wars. Just as Britain and France hesitated to intervene in the American Civil War.
Most of all, the Middle East just isn’t that important to America at the dawn of a new century. Fracking has reduced world dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The Middle East has oil but no industry. The Russo-American conflict is no longer about existential issues. Even terrorism can’t destroy America or Western Europe.
Political scientist (and former Obama Administration advisor on the Middle East) Marc Lynch concludes that “America can be more or less directly involved, but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.” The voice of reason.
 Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (Public Affairs, 2016).
 “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—Thucydides.
 See, for example, Chiarella Esposito, America’s Feeble Weapon: Funding the Marshall Plan in France and Italy, 1948-1950 (Praeger, 1994).