The Obama administration’s startling new admission that it can’t control events in the Middle East—that, as The New York Times reports, some things in the region “[lie] outside its reach” and that it is adopting a “more modest strategy” for the region—and that it is scaling back its mission is a stunning one. But it’s insufficient, and there’s lots more to do to extricate the United States from a regional crisis that it has helped to create itself—by invading Iraq, backing Israel’s ultra-right government, choosing to confront Iran and fomenting civil war in Syria.

The good news, however, is it appears that the White House has decided to formally eschew the aggressive, George W. Bush–style pursuit of regional democracy and to end, once and for all, the Bush-era policy of unilateral war-making in the Middle East. There’s reason to question the truth of this policy reversal, however, since President Obama’s questionable decision to pummel Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles and other munitions certainly falls into the category of unilateral war-making, even though it was never carried out. Nevertheless, read on.

Last summer, we now know—thanks to a revealing, must-read story in The New York Times, clearly leaked by administration officials seeking to buff the Obama administration’s standing—that inside the White House Susan Rice, the national security adviser, orchestrated a secret, White House–only review of Middle East policy. “It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House,” reported the Times, and it was designed to “avoid having events in the Middle East swallow [Obama’s] foreign policy agenda.” Reported the paper:

The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism—eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest.

The Times account added:

Scrawling ideas on a whiteboard and papering the walls of her office with notes, Ms. Rice’s team asked the most basic questions: What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?

The answer was a more modest approach—one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.

Rather than do everything, the Rice-orchestrated policy in the Middle East will focus on Israel-Palestine talks, diplomacy with Iran and dealing with Syria’s civil war. (In other words, let Iraq fester, don’t both trying to fix Egypt’s violent mess, and so on.)

In principle, it’s a good idea. Whether the United States can actually broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and whether the US-Iran talks with succeed, are anyone’s guess, but both are long shots. And negotiating an end to Syria’s war, through the fits-and-starts effort to stage a peace conference in Geneva, is just as iffy. But it’s the right idea: diplomacy first, military action last (or, preferably, never). We’ll see.

A recent address to the National Council on US-Arab Relations by Chas Freeman, amplifies the issue. Freeman, of course, is the iconoclastic gadfly ex-ambassador who was named by Obama to lead the US intelligence community’s analysis unit in 2009, before being unceremoniously shot down by the Israel lobby over his pronounced anti-Likud bias. Said Freeman:

I think we must begin by acknowledging that we have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there.… We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region. The practical implication of this is that we must cooperate with others—strategic competitors as well as countries with whom we are allied in other contexts—in order to serve our regional partners’ interests as well as our own….

We need to rediscover diplomacy. By this I mean something radically contrary to our recent militarism and the related concept of “coercive diplomacy” through sanctions….

Diplomacy, like the successful management of interpersonal ties, lies in the replacement of zero-sum problem definition with frameworks that promote the recognition of common interests. It presupposes empathetic, if reserved, understanding of adverse points of view. It incentivizes good behavior. It avoids vocal denial of the legitimacy of the other side’s interests. It relies on convincing the other side that its objectives can best be achieved by doing things our way, and that it’s in its own interest to change its policies and practices to do so. We seem have forgotten how to do diplomacy in this sense. At least, it’s been a long time since we tried it in the Middle East.

That’s all good advice. Is it reflected at all in Rice’s Middle East review? Perhaps—and perhaps not, if the administration’s foolish decision to bomb Syria in late August is any indication. Still, at present the United States is indeed talking to Iran. It is indeed trying to reach a diplomatic solution in Syria via the Geneva process. And it is indeed trying to broker a comprehensive, two-state accord between Israel and Palestine. So here’s two cheers for Susan Rice.

Greg Mitchell delves into the debate on the future of journalism.