07/21/2014 02:25 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

What the US Should Do in the Middle East

American foreign policy is stymied everywhere in the Middle East. On Palestine, U.S. subservience to Israel's radical nationalist leadership registers mounting costs to the United States' credibility and standing while perpetuating a conflict that reverberates throughout the region. On democracy promotion, its hopes of reconciling political Islam with liberal constitutionalism have been dashed. On Syria, the declared goal of removing the Assad regime is out of reach and its most powerful foe, the ISIS ultras and their like, have become the No. 1 danger to America's friends. On Iraq, the republic god-fathered by Washington is unraveling under the strain of violent sectarian rivalries aggravated by the autocratic ways of the Maliki government. The pernicious repercussions are sharpening of the Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry that is wracking the region, placing the House of Saudi at risk as it is whipsawed by contradictory impulses and policies, and adding further complications to the challenge of reaching a nuclear accord with Iran.

If ever there were a time to rethink the objectives and premises of American strategy, it is now. Yet there are no signs from Washington that any systematic reappraisal is occurring. In one sense, this indicates continuity since a coherent scheme was hard to discern even before the various bits of policy ran into the sand. The implicit acceptance of a disjointed assemblage of discrete pieces and quick fixes as a substitute for strategy no longer is defensible. Adversity does open the opportunity for a drastic overhaul of our thinking and our engagements. Here are a few suggested points of reference for such a rethink.

Interests and goals

1. Abandon the impossible, discredited goal of reshaping the region's politics along constitutional democratic lines in the belief that so doing would dry up the sources of what ails the populace and what leads to "sociopathic" behavior internally and externally.

Separate considerations about desired domestic changes in countries from the assessment of their external behavior

2. Accept that democracy as free elections and democracy as respect for civil liberties are not twinned: elections may bring autocrats to power who abuse human rights -- whether religious autocrats or secular autocrats. In judging when and where to denounce a human rights abuse, avoid any overt distinction based on religion or ethnicity which is fatal to America's moral standing -- doubly so when the person(s) in question is a native born American citizen.

3. Downplay the stress on "terror" as the driving force in how we conceive of American security interests in the Islamic world. It has been hugely exaggerated. Clear discriminations should be made among hostile ideologies and doctrines, violence directed against local regimes, and tangible plans to attack the United States.

4. Recognize that avoiding disruption of oil supplies from the Gulf remains the overriding geostrategic concern of the US, Europe, China and India. That means placing premiums on the foundations of stability and preventing big wars.

Nationally focused policies

1. Summon the courage to confront the Israeli government of Bibi Netanyahu by declaring their current policies unacceptable to the United States, the decent opinion of the enlightened world and self-defeating in terms of Israel's own security and stability.

2. Candidly address the Saudi leaders in regard their support for fundamentalist Islamic groups and teachings by underscoring the ensuing danger to their own moral cum political authority which, in turn, is the basis for the legitimacy of their rule. Emphasis as well as that the United States has a major stake in dampening a regional Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian conflict and, therefore, will act in ways that attempt to differentiate between American political concerns and the doctrinal concerns of other actors in the region.

3. Make up its mind as to what an acceptable outcome(s) in Syria might look like instead of pursuing rhetorical will o' wisps. Recognize that all courses of action will cost us and will lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

4. Abandon the fantasy that the United States can regain the level of influence in Iraq that could be sufficient to determine a preferred outcome there. The Iraqis will determine Iraq's future barring a major military intervention - by us or by Iran. Or by Turkey. Accept that the only feasible unity will take the form of a loose confederal state. Resist the blandishments of unilateralism; work as best one can will all neighbors and regional powers (including the Russians).

5. Iran is the key. Continuation of an implacably hostile relationship with the IRI means an aggravation of every other problem, reducing the chances of achieving satisfactory outcomes, and inflaming the region's sectarian rivalries. A reorientation of the Iranian-American relationship entails the following:

- Scaling back what we visualize as an acceptable level of safeguards and controls on Iran's nuclear activities as a condition for concluding a deal.

- That means living with somewhat greater degree of uncertainty as to existential risk, but one that still would be extremely low.

- Open a rolling dialogue with Iran on regional security issues beyond the nuclear matter

- Exploit every opportunity for mutually beneficial collaboration on tangible issues, e.g. Iraq. This might be done explicitly, tacitly or by pantomime. This could have beneficial effects domestically in both Iran and the United Sates.

- Promote a vision of the region's security that provides a place and role for Iran which conforms to its core interests -0 as well as that of others. Its outlines should be the same as the ones we are promoting with the Saudis.

1. Ground Secretary of State Kerry indefinitely until a strategic review is completed and recommendations agreed. Perpetual motion is no substitute for deliberate diplomacy aimed at coherently formulated goals.

2. Tap the advice of dispassionate and experienced people who understand the Islamic world; weed out the special pleaders and amateurs.

3. Shift the main responsibilities for Middle East strategy from Central Command to a re-manned and reoriented State Department.