Spare a thought for Barack Obama.

In dealing with the Middle East, few if any modern US presidents have been able to find a balance between upholding US ideals and meeting America's practical foreign policy goals. Obama has been dealt a poor hand in the Middle East but has tried harder than most to narrow the gap between ideals and practicalities. He is trying to introduce the concept of government legitimacy as a greater determinant in US relations with regional governments.

He also believes that US military interventions treat symptoms rather than causes, and that they have given Middle Eastern states absolutely zero incentive to reform the political and social malaise that has given rise to the insurgencies the region faces.


President Obama at Cairo University, 2009. (Flickr/US Embassy Kabul.)

Hence his moves to limit the military support he gives to the Iraqi Government. It's a way of forcing the Iraqi Government to take military responsibility for the fighting and political responsibility for establishing a functioning, unitary state not caught in sectarian, tribal and ethnic identity politics. It is also why he has limited his support to the Syrian opposition until it too establishes a military force that is not religiously inspired and presents a viable political alternative (one that is not simply reflective of the policy desires of regional sponsors).

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it relies on your partners acknowledging that they need to earn legitimacy and not have it accorded to them. The rise of ISIS and other Islamist variants is due to a range of factors, but the perceived lack of government legitimacy is a significant element. And when he looks at the region, Obama sees his allies and their policies fueling the legitimacy problem by prioritising short-term interests over long-term solutions.

In Syria, for instance, frustration over perceived US intransigence appears to have brought Turkey and Saudi Arabia together to fund and coordinate Islamist opposition groups whose ideological orientation is about as far from Western secular liberal values as they can be. And Riyadh's apparently aimless air campaign in Yemen has dragged Washington into a conflict it would rather have avoided. It is likely that Riyadh's desire for a Gulf air coalition for Yemen has led to a diminution (if not complete loss) of Gulf air support for anti-ISIS missions in Syria.

Then there's Iraq. Washington's frustration with Baghdad was evident in Obama's recent interview, in which he noted that 'if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.' The sentiment was echoed by his defense secretary, Ashton Carter.

Accountability and introspection are not characteristics often ascribed to Middle Eastern governments. It remains their default position to blame external forces for the problems of the Middle East. There is of course some merit to this, but the region's fractures owe more to internal dynamics than external ones. President Obama has been pretty consistent about how he views government legitimacy. For those in the region who fear the US is losing interest in the Middle East and its problems (and my attendance at the Doha Forum two weeks ago left me with that distinct impression) but can't understand why, they would do well to read President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, in which he said that:

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Perhaps he, like many others, is getting tired of the region and its inability to put any premium on inclusivity and legitimacy. Few could blame him for expecting more of those who seek Washington's help.