The modern Middle East was the creation of three heads of state following in the aftermath of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson (USA), Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau(France) and Prime Minister Lloyd George (UK) gathered in Paris in 1919 and essentially redrew many of the world's borders. Both the French and the British had long standing interests in the Middle East, and once the Middle East power, the Ottoman Empire, collapsed, both countries saw opportunities. Coupled with these blatant political aspirations was President Wilson's insistence upon implementing his vision for world peace, encapsulated in his 14 points for world peace. One of these, the right of self-determination, became and continues to be a driving force in modern national development.
The problem arose in the Middle East and elsewhere that borders that were ultimately drawn creating new nations covered different and often very competitive ethnic groups. As an example, the new nation of Iraq included three major ethnic/religious groups, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Kurds, all of whom had their unique histories and identities. Following the creation of most of the new Middle Eastern countries, the democratic ideals embodied in other sections of Wilson's 14 points were ignored, and the new countries were ultimately taken over by autocrats.
Throughout the years US and European policy towards Middle East governments were harmonious as autocrats were placated to ensure free flowing and cheap oil. That began to change with the frequent Israeli/Arab wars as Arab countries ultimately used their combined clout following the 1973 Yom Kippur War to pressure US policy by limiting oil production and embargoing US imports, dramatically driving up oil prices.
Two unrelated events in 1979-80, however, sparked changes in the Middle East that have reverberated since: 1) 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran (overthrowing an important US ally) and 2) the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan to quell rising Islamic unrest in the southern Soviet republics. In the case of Iran, for the first time in the modern era one of the Middle Eastern countries was now led by Islamic fundamentalists, whose goal, in part, was to spread that fundamentalism far and wide. The US now became the "Great Satan" with Israel dubbed the "Little Satan." Suffice it to say, US influence with Iran was now minimal.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US saw an opportunity to undermine Soviet ambitions by arming and training Afghan resistance groups. On the surface the US efforts were successful, and the Soviet Union got bogged down in Afghanistan. However, one of the Afghan resistant groups later morphed into Al Qaida, a sad example of the law of unintended consequences. In the vacuum of post Soviet war effort, another radical Afghani Islamic ethnic group arose to conquer the country, the Taliban, which granted sanctuary to the more radical Al Qaida operatives.
Also, during the 1980's Iran and Iraq fought a long and bloody war. US policy supported Iraq. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, later pushed back by a quick US led coalition of forces invasion. The world altering event, however, occurred on September 11, 2001, when Al Qaida operatives attacked critical US institutions on her homeland, killing more Americans on US soil than anytime since Pearl Harbor, 1941. The response by the US was overwhelming. Quickly, the Afghan government (Taliban) was confronted by the US with relinquishing the Al Qaida network. The government refused, so the US invaded. US forces combined with other Afghani resistance groups to quickly smash the Taliban and put Al Qaida on the run. Many Al Qaida operatives were killed or captured. Some escaped, including the leader Osama Bin Laden, and were later hunted down.
Unfortunately, the attack on US soil put the US on a war footing, ultimately leading to relying on poor intelligence and strategic planning. Iraq was now seen as another fomenter of terror and the destruction of the world order, especially with the false claim that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, the US again led a coalition of forces to attack and ultimately overthrow the Iraqi regime. The result was the unleashing of ethnic forces in Iraq bottled up for decades by the brutal regime of former dictator Sadaam Hussein. The US cobbled together a "democratic" government, brought some semblance of civil order, trained a new and "enlightened" Iraqi military and gradually began to reduce forces. However, with the US withdrawal came an increasing Iranian influence, using its connections to the large Iraqi Shiite Muslim community, previously severely persecuted by Sadaam Hussein.
The 2008 US Presidential election was a watershed election. US citizens were sick of war and the then collapsing economy and voted for a young, inexperienced African-American US Senator from Illinois to be the new President, Barak Obama. Obama promised early on to change international perceptions of US power and "exceptionalism," including its perception in the Muslim world. Obama's father was an African Muslim, and although some claimed the President himself is one, he was raised and identifies as a Christian.
In a famous 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, Obama proclaimed the beginning of a new relationship and outreach to Muslim nations, including overtures to Iran. Coincidentally, at about the same time arose the political/social phenomenon known as the Arab Spring, throughout the Arab Islamic world. At first the Arab Spring seemed to embody the best of what Obama hoped for, a longing for freedom and democracy in previously autocratic states. It's apparent and greatest success was in Egypt where dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown by the masses. A constitution was cobbled together, an election held and the Muslim Brotherhood (a previously outlawed Islamacist group) won the election. Obama welcomed the new leader, Mohammed Morsi.
However, quickly things spiraled out of control there and in other countries where the Arab Spring arose. Rather than democratic groups taking control, Islamic fundamentalist groups began gaining the upper hand. In Libya the masses began rebelling against the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi responded with overwhelming force. Obama, under pressure from European allies, agreed to limited US involvement to protect the civilian population. Gaddafi was eventually overthrown by a combination of European forces and Libyan rebel groups. Obama refused further US involvement. The result today is a completely failed state, controlled in various places by competing rebel groups, including Islamic fundamentalists.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood solidified its control with Islamacists, which proved unpopular with the masses and with the Egyptian military, including President Morsi's hand picked military chief of staff, Abdel el-Sisi. El-sisi ultimately led a military overthrow of the Brotherhood regime, jailed most of its members and rules the country today. The Obama administration has a strained relationship with el-Sisi.
In Iraq, Iran's influence had increased with the election of former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader in 2006. Governing coalitions with Sunni and Kurd groups proved unsuccessful, as Maliki, with Iranian support, sidelined the Sunnis, which US forces had fought to win over several years before. Disaffected Sunnis became the basis for the later developing ISIS organization.
The greatest tragedy and failing, however, was in Syria. Beginning in 2011, the Arab Spring sought reforms to the dictatorial state. Bashar Assad, the leader and Western trained doctor, responded to the then peaceful protests with overwhelming force. As force continued, various rebel groups formed around the country. Assad responded with ever increasing violence, leading to approximately 250,000 deaths and millions of refugees. Pressure was applied to the Obama administration to do something. While promises were made, actions were never taken. The use of barrel bombs, slaughter of civilian populations, the dissemination of chemical weapons led to minimal or no US involvement. According to many reports, many within the Obama administration supported some military action, such as the institution of protected no fly zones, where refugees could be relocated. In the end, the Obama administration refused.
Where the possibility existed of assisting some moderate rebel groups, because of the lack of support, more radical Islamacist groups associated with Al Qaida gained strength and popularity. Into this quagmire arose the latest and deadliest Islamacist group, ISIS. Finding fertile ground in disaffected Iraqi Sunni Muslims, including some military leaders from the Hussein era, and the unpopulated areas of Syria, ISIS formed as a sudden viable government and successful military force, quickly conquering large swaths of under populated areas. Proclaiming itself a new Caliphate in the Middle East, it sophistically used social media to spread its message and gain thousands of recruits from around the world. Its message and warning was incomprehensible violence. Iraqi military forces were overrun. Suddenly, Iraq looked vulnerable to this crazed group, and finally the Obama administration responded with limited air strikes but no ground forces. At this point ISIS appears somewhat degraded but continues as an effective and deadly fighting force. In the meantime, Iran and now Russia have intervened on the side of Assad in Syria with little or no push back from the Obama administration. They seem content with US concentration against ISIS.
There are probably many reasons why Obama has been reticent to involve US forces in the Middle East, but certainly a big one was the Iran nuclear negotiations. As stated earlier, Obama made outreach to Iran one of his early priorities. In the latter Bush and through much of the Obama years, Iran's nuclear activities increased, despite ever increasing and punishing international economic sanctions. Finally, in 2013 Iran elected a so-called moderate as president, Hassan Rouhani, who immediately indicated interest in nuclear negotiations. The negotiations were "completed" in June and signed by the various parties, Iran, the US and five European nations. The deal halts further Iranian nuclear development for at least 10 years and subjects Iran to intrusive international inspections. In turn, the economic sanctions are gradually removed.
Sadly, the deal is fraught with numerous holes. The vast majority of the US public opposes the deal as does a majority of the Congress. The only ones happy about it are the Obama administration and Iran. Iran has made clear that it will expand its influence over Middle Eastern affairs and appears willing to challenge US power everywhere, again most openly in Syria, propping up the murderous Assad regime.
Furthering adding to the woes of these scenarios is the massive refugee crisis descending upon Europe. With no place to go and no end in sight to the relentless violence and destruction, hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of Syrian/Iraqi refugees are now migrating to Europe, thus creating another massive international crisis. This is unprecedented in European history. The world seems hand strung; the Obama administration oblivious to its culpability in all of these affairs.