But, with all that said, the Middle East is not nearly as important as it used to be. The traditional reasons for U.S. involvement are changing. Once upon a time, it was all about containing the Russians, our dangerous dependence on Arab oil, and a very vulnerable Israel. Then it was all about the threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism, and the desire to nation-build in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of that is now gone. Some of what remains has gotten more complex and limited the role the United States can and should play in the Middle East.
The Russians and the Americans are hardly allies in the Middle East — but they’re not quite enemies either. So, if the Russians aren’t the principal threat to draw the United States into the region anymore, who or what is? answer is terrorism. But, another decade later, the signs of retrenchment and withdrawal from the hot wars that replaced the cold one are pretty clear. We’re out of Iraq, and, by 2014, we’ll be heading for the exits in Afghanistan, too. Energy independence isn’t around the corner. But there’s a revolution brewing in North America that will over time reduce U.S. dependence on Arab oil. U.S. oil production is increasing sharply for the first time in almost a quarter century. Combine that with the rise in national oil production and greater focus on fuel efficiency and conservation, and the trend lines are at least running in the right direction.
The old authoritarians with whom we fought (Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad the elder) and those on whom we relied (Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh) are all gone. It’s true the kings remain. But the most important ones — the Saudis — have serious problems with our policies. They can’t abide the fact that, as a result of our doing, a Shiite prime minister rules in Baghdad; they loathe our policy on acquiescing to Mubarak’s ouster; they resent our interest in reform in Bahrain; and they can’t stand our refusal to get tough with Israel on the Palestinians.
We’ve just suspended a chunk of military aid to Egypt, another of our other Arab friends, and managed to alienate just about every part of the Egyptian political spectrum, from the military to the Islamists to the liberals to the business community.
The speech Obama gave at the UNGA last month doesn’t sound like a guy who’s getting ready to disengage from the Middle East. After all, he committed to making resolutions of both the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the key foreign policy priorities of his second term. Given his risk-aversion, America’s diminished credibility, and the sheer difficulty of the substance, it’s by no means clear that the administration has the resolve and skill to succeed. Still, should Obama overcome these hurdles and deliver on these two issues — and when I say deliver, I mean limited agreements, not conflict-ending ones — not only will he have earned his Nobel peace prize, he will have freed the United States from two awful burdens, made the Middle East a much friendlier and more secure place.