Courtesy Reuters

The Middle East Predicament

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

The United States has had critical interests in the Middle East for as long as it has been a global power. Securing the flow of the region's oil to the world economy has always been a central priority. During the Cold War, competition with the Soviet Union for Middle Eastern allies was another. And helping to protect Israel while keeping the Arab-Israeli conflict from escalating to Armageddon has long been a third. Still, even as Washington dealt with crises ranging from Iranian hostage-taking to Iraqi aggression to Arab-Israeli fighting, its main foreign policy agenda has generally focused elsewhere, such as in Europe or Asia. Now, for the first time in U.S. history, that is no longer true.

As George W. Bush's new administration surveys U.S. interests and threats to them, it will find that its principal concerns now emerge from the Middle East, broadly defined. The war on terrorism may be global, but its roots are there. Iraq is a mess--from which the United States cannot easily extricate itself. Iran will confront the new administration with very tough choices that cannot be avoided. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may be at a turning point, since Yasir Arafat's death and Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza offer new possibilities as well as the potential for even greater chaos. Other regions may pose problems, but none is likely to take up so much of the president's time, resources, and stamina during the next four years.

With more than 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground and elections scheduled for this month, there is no more immediate priority than Iraq. The critical question that needs to be answered is whether the country is becoming more or less secure. Judging by the frequency of attacks, their increased sophistication and range, the growing number of those participating, and the difficulty of proceeding with reconstruction, it seems fair to say that the insurgency has taken on a life of its

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