The ground burns in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Borders are being contested, and militant Islamists have all but overwhelmed secular authorities. Yet America's chief diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, was in the neighborhood this week, for the 10th time, on an expedition to Israel and the Palestinian territories. There was no sudden urgency to the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, nor had an opening presented itself for serious negotiations. Israel's attention was focused, as it had to be, on the large menace of Iran and its nuclear drive, and the Palestinians remained mired in their own squabbles.
It was the practice of so many years that Arabs deployed what pressure they could exert on the United States on behalf of the Palestinians. No longer. It is the struggle for Syria, and the Iranian bid for primacy in the Fertile Crescent, that engage the Arabs. This "shuttle diplomacy" of our secretary of state, if anything, is evidence of the retreat of American power.
President Obama and his foreign policy lieutenants are given to the assertion that they don't want the U.S. caught in the middle of other peoples' wars. But by deeds of commission and omission, the U.S. is caught up in a deadly sectarian struggle between Shiite Iran and its "sister republics" in the Arab world on one side, and the Sunni order of Arab power on the other. Mastery of the arcane details of the Shiite-Sunni schism may not be an American specialty, but over the last two years this president and his advisers have placed the U.S. on the side of Iran and its Arab satraps in Lebanon and, now, Iraq.
Iran planned and prepared for this fight. Its role in Lebanon dates to the early 1980s, when the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini found fertile soil among the Shiites of that country. Iran formed the Hezbollah militia in the country's south and in the Bekaa Valley to the east. Hezbollah fighters, newly urbanized young men in search of financial patronage and a sense of mission, came to think of themselves as soldiers in Khomeini's wilayat al-faqih, a Shiite notion involving ordained supremacy. The Sunnis had their Arab nationalism and ties to the Arabs of Egypt and the Gulf; the Christians had their sense of Lebanese identity and their ease with the West. With Iran at the head, this was the Shiites' opportunity to conquer their self-contempt and sense of isolation.
But of late it is the breakdown of the Syrian state, and the fight over that pivotal country, that has given the Iranians this chance at a big role in Arab endeavors.
Iran and Syria made common cause in the 1980s when Old Man Assad still ruled. He broke with the taboos of Arab brotherhood and sided with the Iranian revolutionary regime in its war with Saddam Hussein. This wasn't an alliance of equals, but Hafez Assad held his own in that delicate relationship. His son, current President Bashar Assad, could not maintain that balance, and the massive rebellion that broke out against his regime in 2011 by the Sunni majority forced him into greater dependence on Iranian subsidies and military support. The Sunni Arab charge that Syria is now occupied by Iran is a slight exaggeration, but only ever so slight.
Iraq presented Iran with an entirely different setting. This was a wealthy oil country, populous, with a jealous sense of its own place in the region. After the American invasion in 2003, political primacy belonged to Iraq's Shiites, but Iraqi Shiism was not eager to slip into subordination to Iran's will and preferences.
But here, too, the Syrian war, and the lack of American interest and willpower were of immense help to the Iranians. The U.S. had quit Iraq by the end of 2011, leaving no residual forces. In the nature of such matters, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki had to proclaim that withdrawal as a signal day in Iraqi political history. But in truth the fragile Baghdad government was not ready to go it alone. The men in power in Baghdad were suspicious of the intentions and the schemes of the Sunni states of the Arab world, as well as those of Turkey. They would have welcomed an American force large enough to shelter them.
The sectarianism unleashed by the Syrian civil war rendered the Iraqi government more susceptible to Iran's influence, and helped poison the well between the Baghdad government and its Sunni population. For Mr. Maliki and his Daawa party, the Syrian rebellion was a Sunni rebellion, plain and simple. A man given to a healthy dosage of paranoia, Mr. Maliki was unnerved by the rebellions of the Arab Awakening. Syria's upheaval, he was convinced, had a warning for him as well. If the Sunni Arab states, Turkey and the jihadists were determined to bring down the Alawite regime in Damascus, it stood to reason that the Shiite government in Baghdad would be in their cross hairs as well.
Having quit Iraq, the Obama administration developed a vested interest in the narrative that all was well in that country. What influence the U.S. still had was tethered to the rule of Mr. Maliki, even as he drifted away from the Sunnis and the Kurds. Borrowing from the book of the Arab authoritarians of old, Mr. Maliki depicted his bid for dominion as part of a campaign against terror. When he turned up in Washington last October, he came to ask for weapons and diplomatic support, but above all to convey to his rivals that he had Washington's blessing for his campaign for a third term as prime minister.
The Obama administration played along when it would have been the better part of wisdom to deny him the visit in the midst of a political campaign. Mr. Maliki is a lucky man. His political bid for yet another term has the endorsement of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and that of Mr. Obama and Mr. Assad.
When the U.S. lay down the foundations of its presence in the Arab world, it befriended and worked with the powers that be—the Sunni regimes. The Shiites were then outsiders, and the inroads Iran was to make into the Arab states were unthinkable.
This is a radically different moment. America's allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the smaller states of the Gulf, and among the Sunnis in Lebanon and Syria can be forgiven the conclusion that the U.S. has acquiesced in this Iranian project. Washington is keen to conciliate Iran. Secretary Kerry has proposed a role for the Iranians in negotiations over Syria—even as Iranian forces and proxies are busy battering what is left of that country. Beirut once mattered to the U.S., but we have left it to the reign of Hezbollah, and what help comes to Lebanese moderates is now offered by Saudi Arabia and France.
A cautionary note: Iran and the Fertile Crescent are not—and by a long shot—a fair reflection of the demography of Islam. The weight of Islam is in the Sunni states. If we opt for an alliance with Iran and its satraps, we should do so in the full knowledge that our choice places us as odds with the vast majority of the Islamic world. Already, our failure to come to the support of the Syrian rebellion has eroded so much of our standing among Muslim Sunnis, in the Arab world and beyond. Five years ago in Cairo, a citadel of Sunni Islam, Mr. Obama called for a new policy of engagement with the Islamic world. That seems more like light years away.
Mr. Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of "The Syrian Rebellion" ( Hoover Press, 2012).