America Is Stuck With the Mideast

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The Middle East is on fire. As waves of populist, ethnic and religious unrest sweep the region, long-established regimes totter like ninepins, violent conflicts explode in once-quiet countries, and all the rules seem up for grabs.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is on life support and Iran is marching steadily toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. And even as President Obama assures us that he has Israel's back and 'will not countenance' Iran getting a nuclear weapon, as he did this week, his administration speaks about 'leading from behind' and of a 'pivot toward Asia.'

Many observers see all this as reflecting a sharp decline in American power. But the reality is more complicated and less dramatic. The reality is that the United States remains 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.

Yet those who believe the U.S. can now turn its full attention on Asia, ignoring the unhappy Middle East, miss the degree to which U.S. interests remain deeply bound up in the fate of the region. In recent weeks, rising Middle East tensions have helped drive up the price of gasoline in the U.S. More price increases will anger voters, scare consumers, and could well knock the nascent U.S. economic recovery on its head.

For President Obama, those developments would pretty much doom his re-election efforts. The same will be true of his successors. Even as the U.S. reduces its direct dependence on Middle East oil, the global nature of the world oil market, and the effect of supply insecurity in other major markets, which affect our economy given the globalization of commerce, means that American presidents will simply not be able to set this region off to the side. It is easier to pivot toward Asia than to pivot away from the Middle East. The reality is that the U.S. will have to walk and chew gum at the same time.

The U.S. government first began to play a major role in Middle East power politics after World War II. (As late as World War I, the U.S. stayed resolutely away, refusing to declare war on the Ottoman Empire and rejecting proffered League of Nations mandates over Armenia and Palestine.) That role has never been particularly pleasant. During much of the Cold War, public opinion in much of the Middle East favored the Soviets. America's relations with Israel were never popular in the Arab nations. Friendly regimes left over from the British era toppled in many countries, yielding to radical and anti-American juntas and dictators.

The U.S. changed alliances many times during the Cold War. Egypt started out as a pro-Western country, shifted to radical socialist nationalism, and came back to the West in the late 1970s. Iraq and Iran turned from staunch allies of the U.S. to bitter opponents. The Gulf states and the Saudis had little love for the U.S., but their interests lay so close to ours that most of the time alliances prospered even if friendship soured.

Today the grounds of alliance are once again shifting, and in unpredictable ways. Turkey and the U.S. are closer than they were three years ago; Egypt and the U.S. are further apart. The Saudis if anything are impatient with U.S. moderation on Iran; here they and the Israelis are reciting from the same book of prayers.

Should political conditions change in Iran, the kaleidoscope could change again. Before 1979, the U.S. and Iran were close allies; new leadership in Tehran might seek to rebuild the relationship. The Sunni world will likely divide if the Iranian threat diminishes, and as usual, some Sunni states will want U.S. support to protect them from others.

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.

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