What’s the old line about how the secret to happiness is lowering your expectations? The same might be true when it comes to defining “success” in foriegn policy – especially in the Middle East.
Two great writers on the same subject. The commonality: disappointment. VDH expresses it, WRM argues we have no choice but to accept it.
In We Give Up, Victor Davis Hanson recounts the sad assortment of things we’ve tried in the region, all of which have essentially failed:
Let us review the various American policy options for the Middle East over the last few decades. Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.
What have we learned? Tribalism, oil, and Islamic fundamentalism are a bad mix that leaves Americans sick and tired of the Middle East — both when they get in it and when they try to stay out of it.
In America is Stuck with the Middle East, Walter Russell Mead acknowledges we are stuck but remains notably more optimistic:
But the reality is more complicated and less dramatic. The reality is that the United Statesremains the paramount power in the region and will remain committed to it for a long time to come.
In all the tumult and upheaval, it’s easy to miss the main point: America’s interests in the Middle East remain simple and in relatively good shape. The U.S. wants a balance of power in the region that prevents any power or coalition of powers inside or outside the region from being able to block the flow of oil to world markets by military means. It wants Israel to be secure. And in the middle to long term, it hopes to see the establishment of stable, democratic governments that can foster economic growth and peace.
If it must, the U.S. will act directly and on its own to achieve these goals. But given its global responsibilities and the multitude of issues in which it is concerned, the U.S. by nature is a burden-sharing rather than a limelight-hogging power. It prefers to work with allies and partners, preferably regional partners.
In today’s Middle East, core U.S. goals enjoy wide, even unprecedented support. As the Sunni Arab world joins hands with Europe, pushes back against Iran, and works to overthrow Syria‘s Bashar al-Assad, a strong coalition has formed around Washington’s most urgent regional priority—the Iranian drive for regional hegemony capped by its nuclear program.
France and the Arab League cursed the U.S. when it invaded Iraq in 2003; in 2011 they seconded and promoted the overthrow of Libya‘s Gaddafi. Turkey hesitated but joined. Now, as the crisis in Syria sharpens once again, U.S. objectives command enormous support across the region.
If this is decline, we could use more of it…
For now at least, the past looks like a good predictor for the next phase of American engagement with the Middle East. Often hated, rarely loved, the U.S. remains indispensable to the region’s balance of power and to the security of the vulnerable oil-producing states on the Gulf. There are many people in the Middle East who would like the U.S. to bow out of the region, and there are many people in the U.S. who would like very much to leave.
For now, both groups must learn to accept disappointment.