09/14/2014 08:20 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2014

Two Cheers for Obama

It took President Obama a long time and multiple stumbles to back into a foreign policy role that looks something like leadership.

If Russian President Putin is agreeing to a cease-fire in Ukraine that just might hold, the U.S.-led combination of pressure and restraint deserves much of the credit. Putin considers the loss of the Ukraine one of the great tragedies of Russian history, and before this conflict is over Putin will probably demand and get greater regional autonomy for Russian-majority Eastern Ukraine. But that beats an annexation or a war.

At the outset of this conflict, Germany was prepared to subordinate the independence of Ukraine to long-standing German economic ties with Russia. Chancellor Merkel's new toughness, which helped alter the Russian calculus, would not have happened without U.S. leadership.

In the Middle East, the expansive Islamic State (or ISIL) portends a prolonged era of inconclusive semi-warfare. There are simply no good policy options, only more or less bad ones.

President Obama, after several false starts, has embraced a strategy that reluctantly re-engages U.S. military power in Iraq and introduces it into Syria. This was not the legacy he intended for the final phase of his presidency.

Obama has come almost full circle, from a novice politician who came to prominence opposing George Bush's Iraq War, to a president committed to withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and now re-introducing American air power and trying to assemble his own, highly reluctant coalition of the willing.

Britain and France may be on board, but none of the frontline Middle East nations is terribly willing, with the exception of the Assad regime in Syria (whose help we don't want) and Iran (which the U.S. administration still brands as an outlaw.)

This struggle, properly understood, is less a case of Sunnis versus Shiites, than a struggle of the medieval against the modern. There are Sunnis and Shiites who value a democratic, pluralist society, and there are those among both who want religious and political absolutism.

Tom Friedman, in the New York Times, points out that ISIL's fundamentalist barbarism is the "hate child" of two civil wars in which more moderate Sunnis were crushed -- by the brutal Assad Shiite-Alawite regime in Syria and the corrupt Maliki Shiite government in Baghdad. Friedman calls for an American alliance with "the Shiites and Sunni of decency."

That sounds reasonable. It would be lovely if the U.S. could make common cause with Arab masses and leaders who embrace modernity. The practical problem is that hardly any government in the region qualifies as a plausible ally.

The closest are Turkey (which is flirting with theocracy), Egypt (which has returned to a military dictatorship), and the Kurdish region of Iraq (which is supposed to pledge allegiance to a strengthened multi-ethnic government in Baghdad). We look the other way when our most reliable allies are despots like the Saudis, whose nationals are the most important suppliers of aid and arms to ISIL.

We saw how nation-building worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Attempting to build modern, secular and democratic regimes in the entire region would be a fool's errand. But that doesn't mean America should disengage altogether.

No president would have an easy time with this mess. It's easy to imagine a Republican president blundering into a much wider war. And though some critics on the left have embraced a deeper neo-isolationism, calling for the Middle East to solve its own problems, it's awfully hard to imagine how that would work. The greater likelihood is more territorial expansion by the Islamic State, more civil wars, and more gains for regimes that are either military despots or Islamist fundamentalists. Sooner or later, the U.S. would be drawn back in.

Obama's policy of containing and degrading ISIL with U.S. air strikes while he attempts to find local boots on the ground is far from an ideal policy. But as the rare failure of Republicans to second-guess the president suggests, it's hard to come up with a better one.

Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect, professor at Brandeis University's Heller School, and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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