Who lost the Middle East?

Story highlights

  • Aaron Miller: Criticism of President Obama's Middle East policies inevitable in an election year
  • U.S. does not bear responsibility for the lion's share of what has gone wrong in region, he says

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)To listen to the presidential debates, particularly on the Republican side, you would think it was the absence of U.S. (read Barack Obama's) leadership that is responsible for the current travails of a broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East. Obama has no strategy in the Middle East, Jeb Bush says. The President is "making things worse in the minds of many Americans," Marco Rubio charges. Ted Cruz, for his part, says the chaos in Syria and Iraq is a direct result of Obama's failed policies.

Even Hillary Clinton, largely supportive of the President's policies, has implicitly criticized the President, saying our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat it. She has also consistently pressed for a no-fly zone in Syria, something that President Obama has rejected.
None of this should surprise. After all, it's a presidential election year, and it would be downright un-American not to blame or criticize someone. But who or what is actually responsible for the unhappy state of affairs in the muddled Middle East?
    Aaron David Miller
    Here are some plausible possibilities. You can take your pick, but my money would be on number three as the real root of the current problems:
    Barack Obama: Inheriting two of the longest -- and among the most profitless -- wars in America's history, the President was determined to get America out if these conflicts and not into new ones. His options were never all that good. But in Iraq he headed for the exits way too soon, acquiesced in former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shia sectarian-centric policies and abdicated the field both militarily and politically, leaving Iraq to its own dysfunctional politics.
    In Syria, the President was too risk-averse, set red lines on Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons that he didn't enforce, allowed his rhetoric (Assad must go) to exceed his capacity to bring it about, underestimated the rise of ISIS, and failed to respond aggressively enough on the military side. And in Libya, the President failed to follow up an eight-month effort to get rid of Moammar Gadhafi with a U.S.-led international effort to stabilize the country.
    Finally, his policies on the Arab Spring and the Iranian nuclear agreement alienated traditional U.S. allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, leaving the United States without the kinds of relationships required to secure its interests. As he begins the final year of his presidency, America is neither feared, respected nor admired in a region where it needs to be.
    George W. Bush: Obama's predecessor shaped the hand the current President was dealt. And although President Obama played it poorly, Bush greatly facilitated the Middle East's dysfunction. By any standard, the invasion of Iraq was an ill-conceived, ill-prepared, disastrous enterprise. And Iraq would set the stage for much of the crisis we see in Iraq and even in Syria today.
    Even if the front end of war could be rationalized (Saddam's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction programs), the back end (trying to turn Iraq into a pro-Western democratic polity) could not. We invaded the country with insufficient forces, a woeful misunderstanding of the sectarian dynamic between Sunnis and Shia, and fantastical goals that could never be achieved, Indeed, the real standard for judging victory was probably never whether we could win, but when could we leave? And, of course, what was left behind.
    But what was left behind was the triggering of a Sunni insurgency that would morph into ISIS, and a willingness to acquiesce in Shia exclusivity that would make a mockery of the possibilities for functional governance and Shia-Sunni reconciliation. If Barack Obama's risk-aversion is part of the current disaster, so was George W. Bush's risk-readiness.
    The Middle East was never ours to lose: Great powers, the Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once warned, meddle in the affairs of small tribes at their own risk. The fact is that neoconservatives and now liberal interventionists are only too ready to beat America up for "losing" this place or that -- whether it be Ukraine, Iraq or Syria -- when the primary responsibility for our failures and setbacks lies with the locals and circumstances we can't control. Unfortunately, this reality does not stop America in continuing to infantilize the Arabs and their affairs, somehow assuming that the West has the answers to their problems.
    The basic problem with the Middle East is the absence of leadership, representative institutions, good governance, gender equality, accountability and above all a willingness on the part of the people who live in the neighborhood to assume responsibility for their own dysfunction and to stop blaming the United States, the CIA, Moscow or Israel.
    Sure we're part of the problem. But by no means do we bear responsibility for the lion's share of what has gone wrong. And the truth is that no amount of U.S. leadership is going to fix a region that's largely comprised of tribes with flags, extractive leaders, Arab and Muslim leaders who won't do enough to delegitimize their own extremists, and empty spaces that are ill-governed, or not governed at all.
    All this means that you can beat up on Obama and Bush 43 all you want -- and the next president, too, if it makes you feel better. But just keep in mind there are no permanent victories in a region where the solutions to most of the key problems are in the hands of the locals.
    Michael Jackson was right. If you want to make a change, start by looking in the mirror. And while U.S. leaders need to take an honest look, the putative leaders in Arab lands are long overdue for a much more extended and critical examination of themselves. Because if they do, what they may very well conclude is that "we have seen the problem, and the problem is us."