We are now surely witnessing historical reversals of Western influence in the Middle East. This does not mean the terrorists have won, nor that the Islamists have won. It does mean that the time when the mere whisper of US power could send shivers of fright down the spine of any Middle Eastern ruler is long gone.
It is extremely difficult now for the US to exercise decisive political influence in that region. We need a new debate, primarily in the US but in the West more broadly, about what are the core Western interests in the Middle East. They are, I would suggest, stability, the reliable supply of oil and the avoidance of massive human rights atrocities. I don't think any longer we can or should pretend that democracy is a serious goal for Western policy. A focus on elections is not helpful.
Elections are great if a country can handle them, but elections without the necessary social and institutional infrastructure can just as readily lead to tears as anything else.
There is also a question about what constitutes stability. Maintaining, or trying to reconstruct, the old state borders of Syria or Iraq is a futile business and may well lead to greater instability. Most conflicts are solved because one side wins and one side loses. The other way conflicts are typically solved is that at some point both sides get tired of fighting and the forces, and the territory they control, are frozen in place.
That's why we have an armistice rather than a peace treaty between North Korea and South Korea, why Pakistan controls so much of Kashmir, why China controls territory that India thinks belongs to it, why Israel has the borders it has with Jordan, why northern Cyprus is a Turkish enclave. Each of these is an ongoing territorial and political dispute that eats up energy and no doubt embodies many injustices. But it is much better in every case than ongoing war. Eventually the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states will be frozen in place too.
Stability, maintaining it or achieving it, used to be the reflex object of US foreign policy. This led to many attacks on the cynicism of US policy as dancing with dictators, or of embodying the sentiment that he may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch.
Stability was much easier to justify as a policy ambition in the context of the Cold War. In a giant historical struggle against a monstrous and powerful enemy, you take all the allies you can get, unless their odiousness is really pretty extreme.
This virtue of stability was attacked from Left and Right after the Cold War.
Bill Clinton accused George HW Bush of coddling the Chinese dictators. Neo-conservative intellectuals like Richard Perle and, to take an example out of left field, the great Russian dissident Natan Sharansky called for the export of democracy to become a key point in US policy in the Middle East. President George W. Bush's second inaugural address was full of this.
This impulse was not cynical or ignoble on the part of the US; rather the reverse. It was the profound belief that Arabs, like all human beings, yearn for freedom. But as Iraq is demonstrating to us, the more ambitious you are in your goals for bringing change to an alien political culture, the less likely you are to succeed.