1) drive the Islamic State out of Iraq, with Iranian help;a lot of people are asking whether this makes sense.
2) keep Iran from building a bomb;
3) end the Syrian civil war without either the Assad regime or the Islamic State ending up on top;
4) preserve Israel's security without writing off the Palestinians;
5) limit the export of terrorism to the west;
6) support the democratic aspirations of the urban middle class in Egypt, Tunisia,and other places; and now
7) help the Saudis defeat an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen and put what we regard as the legitimate government back in charge
Making sense of the Obama administration’s patchwork of policies “is a puzzle,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and former senior State Department official.Personally I fail to see the point of several recent American actions, such as supporting the military coup against Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, or continuing to insist that there are “moderate elements” in Syria who could somehow prevail against both the government and the Sunni radicals. But I am very skeptical that the U.S. could have some strong, coherent, sensible policy that would either make sense or help people in the region. For a look at a different kind of thinking, take a glance at the Op-ed by John Bolton the Times ran the other day, arguing that the US should bomb Iran now and bomb it again every three or four years in perpetuity. “The logic is straightforward,” he says, that Iran cannot be trusted, that unless stopped it will get a bomb, and that a nuclear Iran would be some kind of disaster for the Middle East. (The actual disaster for the Middle East has been John Bolton and his ilk, with their mad attempt to square all of these circles by invading Iraq, but that's water under the bridge by now.)
For decades our Middle East policy was built around supporting autocratic thugs who kept the oil flowing and insured “stability.” But then the Shah of Iran was overthrown, Lebanon erupted into civil war, the Palestinians launched the intifada, and in more and more other places the people were increasingly frustrated by corruption, economic stagnation, and authoritarian police states. After 9-11, Bush and his people decided that something dramatic had to be done to revolutionize the region, hence our invasion of Iraq.
But the descent of Iraq into civil war, followed by the failure of Egypt's experiment with democracy, means we are now pretty much back where we started in 2001. Outside Tunisia, Arab democracy has been fatally weakened by lack of elite support, sectarian rivalries, and a deep, deep division within Arab society over the proper role of Islam and the proper attitude toward western-style modernity. The whole point of Bush's policy was to create successful states that would control terrorism at its source, but instead we have created chaos that allows terrorists to thrive.
I am not awed by Obama's handling of any of this. But at least he has never thought that the U.S. could solve all these problems by some bold, vigorous strategy pursued to the end. I do not believe it is in the power of Americans to solve any of these problems, certainly not by bombing cities to ruins and jailing the whole male population of recalcitrant communities. And I certainly do not believe that having a logical, coherent strategy is the be-all or end-all of foreign policy.
Sometimes the best we can do is respond to events as they come up, and stop reaching for grand solutions.