In the midst of the epochal changes reshaping the Middle East, an assessment of their meanings for the United States should keep in mind a few truths about who we are as a country, where we are as a world power, and where we may reasonably wish to be down the road.
1. American idealism always has been central to our self esteem, and to our standing in the minds of other peoples, even as we have acted pragmatically (wisely or otherwise) in pursuit of our national interests. That idealist side of our split national personality has been badly eroded at both home and abroad with the deleterious consequences strikingly evident in both spheres. We may sublimate awareness of what we have become; most others don't.
2. In an evolving world where our relative power is destined to diminish markedly, the intangibles of status and image grow in importance as assets to be used constructively to help shape a responsible multilateral management of world affairs. That also conforms to what we need to restore, self-confidence and self-respect domestically.
3. Our crass conduct in the Greater Middle East during the 9/11 decade has been far more costly in every respect than the Washington punditocracy (or certainly the media) know or admit. The revolutionary wave in the Arab world is a stroke of good fortune -- a gift from the gods. It creates circumstances of historic dimensions wherein we can restore our credibility and our standing as the "good guys." Obama and his minions seem to have no awareness of this whatsoever. Sadly, they are blind to the big picture as they scurry about on their damage control errands.
4. The challenge is to seize that opportunity while not disregarding our valid, tangible interests that do not fully coincide with our longer term interests in being the godfather and underwriter of democracy in the region. The pivots of our strategic position have been four preoccupations: Terrorism, Iran, Israel and oil. The first three have become obsessions that defy reason and logic. A saner, more reasonable estimation of authentic interests and threats in regard to all three would markedly alter how we balance our divergent concerns and make tradeoffs between short-term and longer-term perspectives. By devaluing the multiform "war against terrorism," we lower our stake in Bahrain naval bases, in potentates like Yemen's Saleh, and in keeping Shi'ites at bay wherever they raise their heads. e.g. Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq where we are suspicious of our own "certified" Shi'ites. As a result of the Iran fixation, the Obama administration views Shi'ites worldwide the way Peter King views the American Muslim community.
5. The stickiest issues are raised by Saudi Arabia -- because of its key role in the global oil market and because there the fall of the House of Saud could bring to power truly disagreeable people.
6. The Bahrain/Saudi link is there although I lack the expertise to estimate possible spillover effects. I can see no compelling reason, though, to send Mr. Gates personally to hold the hands of the Bahrainian royal family, Nor is there reason for us to embrace whatever is left of Mr. Saleh's unsavory and fragile regime in Yemen. The Obama belief that America's future interests are served by tying them to Mr. Saleh is a commentary on how warped is Washington's perception of what counts in the region.
7. Two passive acts could vastly improve our position in the region and the world: leaving Bahrain and Yemeni rulers to their own devices; cooling the passions of our campaign against the Mullahs' regime in Iran. Two active acts complement them: calling out the Israeli government; and intervening in Libya. This is the critical moment to fight free of the pernicious, mesalliance with Israel. The latter is of far greater importance than the place's nominal value. Nearly everyone in the world knows on which side decency lies. They also are looking at the United States to redeem itself. It is not mainly a matter of means but of ends. Very few would mistake a focused, multilateral intervention to turn the military tide there (with no follow-on occupation) for our ravaging of Iraq and Afghanistan. Peoples' instincts usually are truer than we give them credit for. This is especially so when the lines are so sharply drawn and everyone's consciousness is heightened. Even the Arab league has given formal expression to this sentiment. Washington, take note. Don't I recall someone talking about "bending the arc of history?" Or was that another movie?
Libya: Ghosts of Interventions Past
The debate about possible intervention in Libya is shadowed by our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is manifest in several respects. One, the country is weary of fruitless, costly and pointless engagements in distant places. It wants them over and done with -- as the trauma and aftershocks of 9/11 have faded. Hence, the domestic political dangers for a president who makes a fresh military commitment are compounded. Two, the dishonesty that has been the hallmark of our "War on Terror" rampages has eroded the respect and deference that Americans naturally have for their Chief Executive cum Commander and Chief. Three, the possible adverse political effects on Muslim opinion of another American military engagement in the Middle East are far greater because of our recent misconduct in the Islamic world. Fourth, we have lost all conception of military action that is not protracted, massive and pricey. As a result of the last, we greatly exaggerate the requirements for decisively shifting the military/political balance in Libya in favor of the insurgents. The Pentagon has its own parochial reasons for sharing this viewpoint. Fifth, the obsession with Islamic terrorism has twisted our thinking and our tolerance for uncertainty.
It makes us cling to discredited "allies" for no other reason than they have declared themselves "anti-terrorists." Yemen's President Saleh is now the outstanding case. This is the man who publicly inveighed against an Israeli-American conspiracy to bring down his regime and others in the region. Our sub rosa, but generally known support for his continuance in office has lost us standing among Yemenis and others in the region. Were a precarious, cynical Saleh regime to survive, it hardly will be in a position to extirpate whatever al Qaedi presence there is in the country. This is not far from the mindset that led Washington 50 years ago to assassinate Patrice Lumumba in the Congo while building up Messr Kasavubu and Mobuto out of fear that it could go Communist and thereby tip the scales in the Cold War. Now we are told that the safety of Western civilization turns on whether "our" preferred thug is the nominal ruler of the Yemeni wastelands.
We inflate the terrorist threat, we inflate the flimsy franchise operation that is now al Qaeda, we overstate the appeal of fundamentalist Islamist groups generally; and we see the latter as co-terminus with violent jihadist groups. We live in dread -- victims of free floating fear. Sound foreign policy judgments cannot be made on this basis and under prevailing conditions.