American policymakers have had a dream about the creation of a New Middle East. According to a foreign policy consensus that emerged following the September 11 attacks in 2001 -- that brought together Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives -- radical Islamism and terrorism were rooted, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, in "oppression and despair;" and so, the United States role was to advance democratic reform and support basic rights throughout the greater Middle East instead of pursuing policies aimed at maintaining the political status-quo under which military dictators and absolute monarchs ruled the Arab World.
But now, American vision of reforming and democratizing the Middle East lies in tatters. The ousting of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, which was supposed to be the first step in the implementation of the Freedom Agenda of President George W. Bush -- who compared the struggles to forge a "democratic future" to the troubles the United States -- have unleashed a bloody sectarian and ethnic wars in Iraq and in neighboring Syria and Lebanon and led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ruled by murderous and medieval thugs that make Saddam's brutal Baath regime look like an experiment in Jeffersonian democracy.
And as the war between Hamas and Israel continues to rage, one should recall that it was the Bush Administration's dogmatic commitment to spreading democracy in the Middle East that helped the Palestinian Islamist movement win election for the first time in January 2006. When Palestinian and Israeli officials frantically lobbied in Washington for the postponement of the parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, noting that polls pointed to a possible victory by Hamas, America's top democracy cheerleader, Condoleezza Rice, was dismissive. "Holding free and fair Palestinian Legislative Council elections on January 25 represents a key step in the process of building a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state," Rice insisted.
If the Middle East agenda promoted by President Bush and his neoconservative advisors was activist and transformative in nature, including through the use of military power, the approach adopted by President Barack Obama and his liberal internationalist aides was more reactive and accommodative in its response to the political earthquakes ignited by the Arab Spring, including the challenges to the pro-America autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.
Indeed, with both neoconservative and liberal pundits as well as the elite media welcoming the ousting of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- in the same way that they and the conservative media had once hailed the fall of Iraq's Saddam Hussein - as a democratic revolutions akin to those that had taken place in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism in 1989, President Obama and his aides seemed to suggest that America needed to take a ride on this wave of change - or be left behind.
The United States needed to address the Arab Spring, "the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security," Obama stressed. "The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds," beyond traditional American interests such as counterterrorism and counter-proliferation, he insisted.
Unlike President Bush, President Obama's approach wasn't a product of a hard-core ideological doctrine and a coherent strategy. He has been muddling through most of the time, giving a green light to holding free elections in Tunisia but not in Bahrain, or using American military power to help oust Libya's Muhammar Kaddafi but reusing to do so when it came to the insurgents fighting the Syria's Bashar Assad.
Yet Obama's decision to abandon the long-time American ally Hosni Mubarak and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power through free election in Egypt amounted to a major reversal in American policy in the Middle East and reverberated across the region. It shook up the Israeli and the Saudi leaders who believed that the young and inexperienced president was operating in a foreign policy la la land in by assuming that Turkey's democratic Islamist model would eventually take hold in the New Middle East emerging out of the Arab Spring.
Unlike Western intellectuals and political elites, the Saudis and the Israelis -- very much like most leaders in the Middle East -- have never bought into the notion that the region was about to enter into a new historical epoch under which it would embrace the principles of the Enlightenment Project.
Instead, much of the swift changes that have been sweeping the region since 9/11, through the Iraq War, and until the Arab Spring -- with the direct and indirect help of the United States -- were seen by those who had a stake in maintaining the status-quo as a struggle for power between ethnic, religious, and tribal groups and the regional and global powers that support them.
From that perspective, the Israelis and Saudis perceived the fall of friendly and accommodating ruler of the largest and most powerful Arab state and the ensuing election of the Muslim Brotherhood as a direct threat to their national interests while benefiting the interests of Turkey (Not to mention the absurd notion that replacing a leader committed to supporting the rights of women and religious minorities with a radical Islamist group was a step advancing liberty in the Middle East). Hence it was not surprising that based on pure Realpolitik considerations, the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and the return of the military to power in Egypt were applauded in both Riyadh and Jerusalem.
That the Israelis and the Saudis have also both apprehensive over the Obama Administration's effort to accommodate Iranian interests, and that the Egyptians and the Israelis -- with Saudi blessing and despite a certain American reservations -- cooperated in trying to decimate Hamas' military power in Gaza, may not be signs of a new strategic realignment in the Middle East but more of an emerging partnership that reflects some common interests; and in particular, the need to fill the strategic vacuum created by the inability of the United States to continue maintaining its role as a hegemonic power in the region.
To put it in more simple terms, while the Obama Administration responded to this new reality by trying to accommodate some anti-status-quo players, the Saudis, Egypt and Israel are resisting the current American approach that seems to run contrary to their interests. And as their policies during the war in Gaza demonstrated, they are not expecting the Americans to do the job for them and are even willing to take steps that are not in line with Washington's positions.
In a way, this evolving partnership recalls the one that Jerusalem maintained with Ankara as part of the common struggle against Arab radicalism during the Cold War. Indeed, even when it comes to such a contentious issue as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's not inconceivable to envision a gradual process of reconciliation involving Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas based on the 2002 Arab League peace initiative.
In fact, an effort to re-assert a more conservative order in the Middle East, along the lines of settlements that took place in Europe after the 1848 revolutions, doesn't preclude the possibility of co-opting Iran into the system in addition to providing for some forms of Palestinian and Kurdish independence.
Americans should welcome the re-assertion of the old order in the region while continuing to encourage gradual political and economic reforms instead of operating as democratic missionaries in the region, now that the fantasy of a New Middle East has been buried in Irbil and Gaza.