This White House, like its predecessors, can take some comfort in the fact that the Middle East has been breaking the hearts of diplomats and foreign politicians for at least 2,000 years. Of course, some centuries have been worse than others (Pontius Pilate had a particularly difficult innings). But in modern times, the American voting public has become accustomed to seeing regular news from the Middle East feature wars, terrorism, mayhem, religious fanaticism and failed peace initiatives.
As a result, few presidents pay much of a price at election time for failing to deliver peace or other conspicuous diplomatic successes from that cradle of civilization and birthplace of the three great religions of the Book. I am certainly not prepared to predict that President Obama will lose many votes in 2012 based on his Middle East policy.
And yet, events of recent weeks are beginning to suggest a singular moment of U.S. policy ineffectiveness -- even ineptness. Two months ago, the administration's dithering about, and then undermining of, Egyptian President Mubarak's government outraged both Saudi Arabia and the kids on the street during the uprising.
That "democratic revolution," as the administration persistently called it, seems to have settled down into an ugly accord between the Army-run government, the Muslim Brotherhood and the fanatical salafists -- which the new regime has been releasing from the prisons into which Mubarak very usefully had sent those dreadful men. Killing Coptic Christians, attacking women on the street for non-Muslim garb and other pre-Mubarak attitudes are thus now back in vogue in "democratic" Egypt.
The administration's inconsistent policies in, inter alia, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Iran and Yemen continue to baffle and confuse the world.
Two weeks ago, the administration was "surprised" at the Egyptian-brokered accord between the terrorist Hamas and the West Bank Fatah Palestinian factions -- ending even a theoretical chance of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations.
Then last week -- with King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu scheduled to be in Washington this week for separate, major discussions with the president (and Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress), the president's Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, announced he was summarily quitting.
The day before Mitchell's public resignation, the White House announced that the president would be giving, this Thursday, his second major outreach speech to "the Muslim world" (an inapt, monolithic term for a vastly variegated fifth of mankind).
The first speech in June 2009 was at the famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This Thursday's speech will be delivered at the rather less spectacular State Department office building on C Street NW here in Washington.
Surprisingly, according to The Wall Street Journal, this week's speech will mention the killing of bin Laden. As the WSJ reported: "(The president) will ask those in the Middle East and beyond to reject Islamic militancy in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death and embrace a new era of relations with the U.S. ..."
What makes all this awkward (at the minimum) is that the administration has always argued that the Arab/Israeli lack of peace has been at the center of Middle East chaos -- and that a peace accord is the first, necessary step to broader resolution of Middle East problems.
But the Mitchell resignation is seen -- across the spectrum -- as convincing evidence that the president's Middle East peace process is utterly dead, which makes this week's high-level talks with the president, the king and the prime minster an exercise in embarrassing irrelevancy.
Usually, cabinet-level staff attempt to insulate a president from direct responsibility for failed policies. But, curiously, in light of this meltdown of administration Middle East policy, Thomas E. Donilon, the White House's national security adviser, told The New York Times: "(The president) has really been the central intellectual force in these decisions, in many cases, designing the approaches."
The same article reported that they were told by White House staff that the president "often surfs the blogs of experts on Arab affairs or regional news sites to get a local flavor for events (and) has sounded out prominent journalists like Fareed Zakaria of Time magazine and CNN and Thomas L. Friedman ... (and) ordered staff members to study transitions in 50 to 60 countries."
Washington staff are famous for trying to take credit for their boss' successes. But one rarely has the treat of seeing a top staffer go on the record in The New York Times to give his boss full personal credit for a failed policy.
The more disturbing possible conclusion from the Donilon quote is that both the president and his staff actually believe they currently are carrying out a successful Middle East policy.