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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

U.S. Needs a Role in the New Mideast - The Regional Transformation Launched by the Arab Spring Calls Compels America to Rethink its Stake: "The three most consequential states in the Middle East today—Turkey, Iran and Israel—all are non-Arabs."

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

It's becoming clear the Arab Spring didn't merely shake up the ossified power structure of the Middle East. It launched a total transformation of the region—one that has reduced American influence and ultimately will compel the U.S. to rethink its stake in an area that for half a century was assumed to be central to its global interests.

Syria's civil war is bleeding into Lebanon and Iraq, weakening the governments of both and setting off parallel fights between armed Sunni and Shiite groups. Egypt's military government is growing more authoritarian and beyond the reach of American influence. Libya has gone from being a bizarre but ultimately stable nation run by a single mercurial figure to a state beyond anyone's control. Yemen is a playground for Islamic extremists. Persian Gulf monarchies are stable but frightened.
 
All this represents a virtual collapse of the Arab world's power structure. As Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department Middle East aide and now a vice president at the Wilson Center, notes: "The three most consequential states in the Middle East today—Turkey, Iran and Israel—all are non-Arabs."

This amounts to an earthquake in a region that for decades was kept stable because of rule by secular Arab strongmen in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Tunisia. Some were America's friends, some were America's foes, some vacillated between the two, but all provided a stability that translated into a safe flow of oil.

In theory, all this should represent good news for the U.S. The ouster of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and the threat to the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria represent the weakening of what had been for many years a kind of axis of Arab anti-Americanism. But nothing is that simple in the Middle East, and three problems are making the changes troublesome for Washington:

• The collapse of the Arab power structure has opened the door for expanded influence by Iran—a legacy of the Iraq war. It rid the world of Saddam Hussein but made the region safer for Iran next door.

• The departure of Arab autocrats hasn't paved the way for the rise of secular democracy, at least not yet. Instead it has opened the path for Islamic extremists that the autocrats had long suppressed.

• As is becoming increasingly clear in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the earthquake shook loose underlying tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assad family's regime in Syria helped keep these tensions in check for everybody. No more. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia is bankrolling the region's Sunni factions and Iran is giving aid to the Shiite ones, creating an unhealthy kind of broad sectarian proxy struggle.

These changed dynamics should be calling forth a serious national debate about America's interests in the Middle East in a new era of lowered dependence on Middle East oil, continued risk of Islamic-extremist terrorism and exhaustion with military interventions in the region. Current debates over the wisdom of a nuclear deal with Iran and intervention in Syria are complicated by the simple lack of national consensus on America's broader interests these days. 
 
For now, the U.S. seems to have limited ability or interest in affecting the trend lines. But the perception the U.S. can steer events in the region—a perception that always was a bit exaggerated—is fading.
 
A lot of American influence stemmed from the belief that the U.S. could, and just might, intervene militarily to realign the balance of power in the region. After the exhaustion borne of more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the wake of a conscious decision not to intervene to help rebels in Syria's civil war, that idea simply isn't taken as seriously.
 
More than that, it isn't clear the American public cares all that much. The U.S. is producing more of its own energy, Washington's friends in Israel seem secure and the memory of terrorist attacks is fading.
 
Unfortunately, that's shortsighted. The U.S. has a deep interest in the health of a global economy that still depends on Middle East oil. The dangers of Islamic extremism actually are on the rise rather than the decline. And now there is the real danger of a destabilizing regional nuclear arms race in coming decades set off by Iran.
 
Americans have a stake, like it or not. "Let's be clear," says Mr. Miller. "We're trapped in a region we can't fix or leave."
Once upon a time, starting a national discussion about all this would have been the job of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Perhaps it can be again.

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