The Return of the Old Middle East

How to Win at Balance-of-Power Politics

Courtesy Reuters

As the United States has learned from its failures at transforming the Middle East, old-fashioned balance-of-power politics are once again driving events in the region.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration hoped that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict would stabilize the region by marginalizing Iran and strengthening pro-American regimes, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. In turn, the theory went, this would lead to unprecedented economic cooperation among states in the region and the emergence of what Shimon Peres, Israel's prime minister in 1995-96 and its president today, called a "new Middle East." The diagnosis was not bad, but the treatment did not work, and the patient remained as sick as ever.

Then, in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration developed its own grand design for the region. The centerpiece of the plan was to replace the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq with a thriving democracy. A successful U.S. intervention in Iraq was supposed to intimidate anti-American actors in the Middle East, start a democratic chain reaction throughout the region, encourage Arab-Israeli peace, and reduce the threat of terrorist attacks against the United States.

But despite some modest successes, the Bush administration's "forward strategy of freedom" -- much like Clinton's efforts at engagement -- ultimately failed to remake the Middle East. As Iraq became weaker, Iran grew stronger and both the fundamentalist parties within Iraq and Islamic groups elsewhere, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, gained political ground.

The Obama administration seems to have more realistic goals in the Middle East. The new team realizes that the Iranian leadership has to be engaged rather than isolated in the hope that it might just go away. The Obama administration seems appropriately humble about the prospects for achieving Arab-Israeli peace but also determined to try.

All this is sensible, but to best secure U.S. interests in the Middle East, the new administration needs to remind itself of the rules of the local game -- the traditional contest for influence among

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