Masked Sunni gunmen chant slogans against the Iraqi Shiite-led government...

Masked Sunni gunmen chant slogans against the Iraqi Shiite-led government during a protest in Fallujah city. (Jan. 7, 2014) Credit: EPA

There was an amusing (well, darkly amusing) juxtaposition on the home page of The New York Times the other day.

One headline read, "For Obama, a Real and Rare Vacation in Hawaii." The story reported that, "Air Force One was barely off the ground for the 10-hour flight when White House aides began making bold predictions: They expected no urgent news to break during the trip. And this year ? they were right." Another story on the same page was topped with this headline: "Qaeda-Linked Militants in Iraq Secure Nearly Full Control of Falluja."

I suppose that since news of the near-collapse of Iraq as a unitary state and the resurgence of al-Qaida came at the very end of Obama's trip to Hawaii, the first story was mainly right. Still, the second story contained the sort of news that could genuinely be called urgent.

I'll be writing a lot more about the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot arrangements, but for now, allow me to raise a question that grips Washington (or at least that part of Washington that still cares about what happens in other countries): To what extent is President Barack Obama to blame for this Beirut-to-Baghdad crisis? By Beirut to Baghdad, I mean the very obvious civil war between radical Sunnis and radical Shiites (al-Qaida vs. Hezbollah, for short) that has spilled out from a disintegrating Syria into Lebanon and Iraq (and, in truth, well beyond). The Sunni-Shiite split, combined with general crises of governance in places such as Egypt, has made the Middle East catastrophically tumultuous. The one area of relative calm, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, is the focus of much of Secretary of State John Kerry's attention, in part because it's the one puzzle the U.S. has even a slight chance of solving.

Which brings me to my point: Though I am inclined toward interventionism, and though I believe that early action by the Obama administration to support the Syrian rebellion -- before it came to be dominated by al-Qaida-type militants -- may have prevented some of the chaos we see at the moment, I'm not going to argue that the U.S. is equipped to inject itself successfully into three or four hugely complicated and hate-filled sectarian struggles. We thought -- I thought -- that the removal of Saddam Hussein would lead, in fits and starts, to a democratic Iraq. It's not so simple, and it might be foolish to think that a huge commitment of resources and, God forbid, soldiers, to fixing the current ailments of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon (for starters) would work.

There is plenty of criticism of Obama for his seemingly passive handling of these overlapping crises, and I'm not at all immune to the logic of these critiques. One of the most eloquent critics is the Brookings Institution's Michael Doran, formerly a staffer on George W. Bush's National Security Council. I asked him to make the concise case that Obama is absent-without-leave from the Middle East. He responded: "The current mess is the breakdown of the regional order. Obama did not cause the breakdown, but he abdicated the traditional U.S. leadership role, which is indispensable to building a new order. It was the job of the United States to define an alternative in Syria to Assad/Iran and al-Qaida, and to build a coalition to make it a reality. Only the U.S. can assign roles and missions that would allow diverse actors such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to work together toward common goals. In the absence of U.S. leadership, everyone goes off in their own direction." He concluded by saying, "Building a coalition does not necessarily mean putting U.S. boots on the ground, but it does mean leading."

I then asked Benjamin Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, for his response to critics who argue that the U.S. is disengaging rapidly, and irresponsibly, from the Middle East. Here is what he emailed: "The United States makes decisions about our foreign policy based on our interests. It's not in America's interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East, or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East. It is in our interests to spend significant diplomatic effort -- and resources -- seeking to resolve conflict and build the capacity of our partners, which is exactly what we are doing. This notion that there was a previous age when we dictated the internal affairs of country in the Middle East is not borne out by reality. When we had well over a hundred thousand troops in Iraq, we weren't able to shape the political reality of that country, or to end sectarian hatred. Moreover, the notion that we are disengaged doesn't make sense when the United States is engaged across the region in ways that no other nation is -- to reach an agreement over Iran's nuclear program, advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, destroy Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, counter al-Qaida and its affiliates, secure Israel and our Gulf partners, and support transitions to democracy from Yemen to Libya."

Both men make good points, though I think Doran overestimates the power of the U.S. to shape the behavior of Arabs -- the rulers and the ruled, both of whom would prefer not to have Americans shape their behavior. And Rhodes, like the administration he works for, underplays the destabilizing impact the U.S. rapprochement with Iran has on America's traditional allies in the region (Israel, and most Sunni Arab states). But I tend to think, post-Iraq, that Rhodes is on to something when he casts doubt on America's power to reshape the internal dynamics of deeply dysfunctional states that are already disposed to distrust the U.S. I asked another expert I trust, Andrew Exum, who until recently served as a special adviser on Middle East policy at the Pentagon, to assess the degree to which Obama is responsible for exacerbating this cross-border civil war.

He said, "The Obama Administration has very little responsibility for most of what's going on in the region right now. I trace the deterioration of Sunni-Shia relations in the region back to the start of the civil war in post-Saddam Iraq (which an earlier American administration certainly had a hand in precipitating), but you could argue regional Sunni and Shia communities have been on a collision course since the discovery of oil fueled the spread of a very intolerant strain of Sunni Islam at the same time in which a fundamentalist Shia regime -- with revolutionary ideals -- was taking power in Tehran."

"When I look at the region from the prism I know best -- Lebanon -- U.S. actions matter little," Exum added. "Things like the armaments of Hezbollah, the assassination of Rafik Hariri and other Sunni leaders, the absence of more moderate Sunni leaders like Saad Hariri (which has allowed the rise of radical Sunni clerics ? in Tripoli and Sidon), the influx of Gulf and Iranian money, the street fighting of May 2008, and the effects of the war in Iraq (which the Sunnis lost) all matter orders of magnitude more than what the U.S. has done."

The most concise statement I've seen on this conundrum came from Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, who wrote on Twitter that, "This ME [Middle East] hell was made by leaders and peoples of the region. By oscillating between intervention and retreat," the U.S. is making it worse.

The Bush administration's sin was overengagement; the Obama administration's sin may be underengagement. Certainly, in Syria, there was much more to be done early on. But ultimately, the U.S. is a bystander. It did not create the problems that plague the Arab Middle East.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

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