Obama’s defenders have some answers to this: There’s no reason, they say, for the United States to be sucked down the rabbit hole of every Middle East conflict. The motives and interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t always worth encouraging. The former is driven by the atavistic sectarian enmity between Sunni and Shia; the latter sees no chance of co-existence with an Islamic Republic. Anyway, the Obamites say, the administration is trying to address the region’s larger problems through the pursuit of a political settlement in Syria as well as an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Here lies another problem. Virtually no one outside the State Department — including the nominal parties to the talks — takes seriously the possibility that Kerry’s plan for a Geneva conference to settle the Syrian war can work in the foreseeable future, or that Israelis and Palestinians can agree on a two-state settlement. They play along with the process to please Washington, or Moscow, while complaining to journalists like me that Kerry’s diplomacy is based on fantasy. Who can imagine Syrian President Bashar al-Assad placidly agreeing to step down? Or Netanyahu ceding East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians and their security forces?

Diplomatic breakthroughs, like arms control agreements, don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen because political, economic and security conditions make them possible. The nuclear freeze movement failed in the early 1980s because the Soviet Union still presented a tangible and inescapable threat to the West. A Syrian peace conference could not succeed now because the Assad regime is in no immediate danger of losing on the battlefield.