This is not a Jimmy Carter moment—a U.S. Embassy and its staff seized and held hostage for 444 days, America's enemies taking stock of its weakness, its allies running for cover. But the anti-American protests that broke upon 20 nations this past week must be reckoned a grand personal failure for Barack Obama, and a case of hubris undone.
No American president before this one had proclaimed such intimacy with a world that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia. From the start of his administration, Mr. Obama put forth his own biography as a bridge to those aggrieved nations. He would be a "different president," he promised, and the years he lived among Muslims would acquit him—and thus America itself. He was the un-Bush.
And so, in June 2009, Mr. Obama descended on Cairo. He had opposed the Iraq war, he had Muslim relatives, and he would offer Egyptians, and by extension other Arabs, the promise of a "new beginning." They told their history as a tale of victimization at the hands of outsiders, and he empathized with that narrative.
He spoke of "colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations."
Without knowing it, he had broken a time-honored maxim of that world: Never speak ill of your own people when in the company of strangers. There was too little recognition of the malignant trilogy—anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and anti-modernism—that had poisoned the life of Egypt and much of the region.
The crowd took in what this stranger had to say, and some were flattered by his embrace of their culture. But ever since its traumatic encounter with the guns and ideas of the West in the opening years of the 19th century, the region had seen conquerors come and go. Its people have an unfailing eye for the promises and predilections of outsiders.
It didn't take long for this new American leader to come down to earth. In the summer of 2009, Iran erupted in rebellion against its theocratic rulers. That upheaval exposed the contradictions at the heart of the Obama approach. At his core, he was a hyper-realist: The call of freedom did not tug at him. He was certain that the theocracy would respond to his outreach, resulting in a diplomatic breakthrough. But Iran's clerical rulers had no interest in a breakthrough. We are the Great Satan, and they need their foreign demons to maintain their grip on power.
The embattled "liberals" in the region were awakened to the truth of Mr. Obama. He was a man of the status quo, with a superficial knowledge of lands beyond. In Cairo, he had described himself as a "student of history." But in his first foreign television interview, he declared his intention to restore U.S. relations with the Islamic world to "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago."
This coincided, almost to the day, with the 30th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power in Iran. That "golden age" he sought to restore covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Beirut to the forces of terror, deadly attacks on our embassies, the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and more. A trail of terror had shadowed the American presence.
Yet here was a president who would end this history, who would withdraw from both the "good war" in Afghanistan and the bad one in Iraq. Here was a president who would target America's real enemy—al Qaeda. "Osama bin Laden is dead," we've been told time and again, and good riddance to him. But those attacking our embassies last week had a disturbing rebuttal: "Obama, we are Osama!" they chanted, some brandishing al Qaeda flags.
Until last Tuesday's deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi, it was the fashion of Mr. Obama and his lieutenants to proclaim that the tide of war is receding. But we can't declare a unilateral end to our troubles, nor can we avert our gaze from the disorder that afflicts the societies of the Greater Middle East.
A Muslim world that can take to the streets, as far away as Jakarta, in protest against a vulgar film depiction of the Prophet Muhammad—yet barely call up a crowd on behalf of a Syrian population that has endured unspeakable hell at the hands of the dictator Bashar al-Assad—is in need of self-criticism and repair. We do these societies no favor if we leave them to the illusion that they can pass through the gates of the modern world carrying those ruinous ideas.
Yet the word in Washington is that we must pull back from those troubled Arab and Muslim lands. The grand expectations that Mr. Obama had for Afghanistan have largely been forgotten. The Taliban are content to wait us out, secure in the knowledge that, come 2014, we and our allies will have quit the place. And neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country with 170 million people, is written off as a hotbed of extremism.
Meanwhile, Syria burns and calls for help, but the call goes unanswered. The civil war there has become a great Sunni-Shiite schism. Lebanon teeters on the edge. More important, trouble has spilled into Turkey. The Turks have come to resent the American abdication and the heavy burden the Syrian struggle has imposed on them. In contrast, the mullahs in Iran have read the landscape well and are determined to sustain the Assad dictatorship.
Our foreign policy has been altered, as never before, to fit one man's electoral needs. We hear from the presidential handlers only what they want us to believe about the temper of distant lands. It was only yesterday that our leader, we are told, had solved the riddle of our position in the world.
Give him your warrant, the palace guard intone, at least until the next election. In tales of charismatic, chosen leaders, it is always, and only, about the man at the helm.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).