U.S. President Barack Obama wrote the words for this headline in 1983 as a student at Columbia University. He was describing the nuclear freeze movement and how its focus on warhead numbers left the larger social justice issues of the Cold War era unaddressed. But he could just as well have been describing his own policies in the Middle East 30 years later — and why they have driven a wedge between the United States and some of its closest allies.

In his zeal to extract his administration from what he sees as a regional quagmire, Obama has, like the old freeze movement, adopted a narrow and high-altitude approach to a complex and sprawling set of conflicts. Rising above the carnage in Syria — or "somebody else's civil war," as he called it in his recent speech at the United Nations — he has adopted a priority of destroying the country's chemical weapons arsenal. He seeks to put stronger safeguards on Iran's nuclear program, while sidestepping its larger effort to use terrorism and proxy wars to become a regional hegemon.

From a certain Washington point of view, Obama's aims look worthy and, better yet, plausibly achievable — unlike, say, establishing democracy in Iraq. The problem with the approach is that it assumes that the Syrian civil war and other conflicts across the region pose no serious threat to what Obama calls "core U.S. interests," and can be safely relegated to the nebulous realm of U.N. diplomacy and Geneva conferences, where Secretary of State John Kerry lives.