Obama's 'hands-off' policy on Middle East has gone tragically, terribly wrong
Listening to America's ambassador to the UN lamenting the slaughter in Syria on Tuesday, I found myself doing something I haven't done for a long time.
I actually paid attention. Like most people, I have tired over the years of hearing the same old pleas and platitudes mouthed to no effect, but on this occasion, there was no denying that Samantha Power's speech had a certain compelling quality.
For one thing, there was the gravity of the occasion. As Syrian government troops, backed by Russia and Iran, complete their final stranglehold on what remains of rebel-held Aleppo, she reminded us that even in the midst of Syria's five long years of atrocities, this was something of a milestone: an episode that future generations would regret not stopping, like Srebrenica or Rwanda.
Then there was the language. Rather than the turgid diplomatic innuendo so often used at the UN security council, Power accused Syria, Russia and Iran head-on of putting tens of thousands of people in an "ever-tightening noose".
As she put it: "Is there literally nothing that can shame you?"
Maybe it's just because Power, an ex-war correspondent and human rights activist, knows how to do moral outrage well.
But the other poignant element was that this grandstanding speech, full of horror at the callousness of the world order, should have come in the very dying days of the Obama regime - the era of 'The Man who Can', who everyone thought would bring a new beginning.
Is this what Power would have wanted as her swansong? I doubt it.
"Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo," said Power.
Power, moreover, was one of the most powerful figures in Obama's administration, and helped persuade him to intervene in Libya. For any earnest young things who want to follow in her footsteps, who want to think they can make a difference in the world, hers is no longer an inspirational story.
Yet for all the criticisms that Mr Obama was weak on foreign policy, or even lacked a policy at all, there was one principle that he rightly stuck to. Namely, that America had been involved quite enough in the Middle East, and that it was time to get out. Not just because it waved a red-white-and-blue rag to jihadists, or because America was fed up of losing sons to wars on the other side of the world.
But because it was high time, especially after the chaos of Iraq, for the region to sort its own affairs out. To grow up, in effect, and to stop blaming others for its problems. Or, indeed blaming others when they tried to help.
As the crisis in Syria has escalated, and the handwringing over what to do has grown, this has all but been forgotten.
But a decade ago, as America and Britain were still embroiled in Iraq, it was the driving rationale.
The reason for Obama's much-criticised decision to pull troops from Iraq in 2011 wasn't just to reduce the US body count. It was because Washington realised that unless Iraq had to stand on its own two feet, it would never learn to do so.
Yes, there would be problems - as was proved two years later by the Isil take-over of Mosul.
But had America simply stayed there all along, advising, mentoring and taking all the hard decisions, Iraq would have become just as much of a colony as it was during British-ruled Mesopotamia.
"[If] we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores...that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East," said Obama.
Ironically, Obama's hands-off approach coincided with one of the few eras in modern history when the Middle East itself took its destiny into its own hands.
In 2011, the Arab Spring, an almost entirely organic movement of revolutions, toppled more Middle Eastern despots than George W Bush ever dared dream of.
It seems hard to remember now, but back then, it was the voice of the newly emboldened, Facebook-surfing Arab middle class that was calling the shots, urging reform among its own leaders.
The Arab League - previously all but fossilized as a diplomatic entity - sprang to life for the first time, shuttling troubleshooters around the region as governments rose and fell. There was hope that the League would soon be the Arab world's answer to the UN: far better at understanding its myriad intricacies, and much better at sorting its problems.
For once, the West and everyone else could take a back seat.
Fast forward to 2016, though, and that seems hopeless optimistic.
When did you last hear an Arab League spokesman quoted on the radio about Syria? Or Libya? Or Yemen, or any of the region's other innumerable conflict zones?
Instead, it's still people like Ms Power calling the shots. And, increasingly, her opposite numbers in Russia, for whom the Arab world is now just an arena for Cold War proxy conflicts, just as Africa was in the 1960s and 70s.
The other irony, though, is that even though he departs office with the Middle East in worse shape than ever, Mr Obama's philosophy was all but identical to that of the man considered the greatest Arabist ever.
As scholars of TE Lawrence will know - and there are many among British officers who trained Iraqi troops - his most famous saying was: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly."
Tragically, since the Arab Spring, neither the West nor the Arabs have got even close to doing things "tolerably".
And sadly, part of me can't help thinking that if Lawrence had seen modern-day Aleppo, he might have thought differently. (© Daily Telegraph London)