A Time for Middle East Realism

DENVER – The Middle East has not been easy on US presidents over the past seven decades. Historically, support for Israel and its right to exist within defensible borders has been tenuously balanced against the need to defend shipping lanes for oil and otherwise protecting world energy supplies. But the difficulties faced by previous US administrations pale in comparison to those created by the challenges of today’s Middle East.

Israel is still there, but it has become a much more difficult ally. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of the US Congress in March, at the invitation of President Barack Obama’s domestic opponents, has subjected a key foreign-policy issue to the distortions of America’s deep and disabling partisan polarization.

Meanwhile, ensuring secure oil supplies and shipping lanes has become more complicated, because the US must now play the entire chessboard of Arab issues. Worse, it has sometimes seemed to be playing blindfolded, with significant gaps between local realities and policymakers’ understanding of them.

When the Arab Spring began four years ago, the US pushed instinctively for regime change in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, while defending the new constitutional order in Iraq. The results should be read as a cautionary tale for those seeking instant gratification through regime change. Though some highly unsavory leaders were removed, what followed has been even worse. The main effect of regime change has been to strengthen sectarian identities and weaken existing nation-states’ prospects for survival.