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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 regional states. It is played out more in political terms than in military ones, although the possibility of violence is never far. The players are the stronger regional powers (Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and the playing fields are the weaker powers (Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories) whose governments cannot prevent outsiders from interfering in domestic politics. The tools of influence are money, guns, and ideology -- and the scorecard is judged by the political orientations of the weaker states.
By this metric, Iran is doing rather well. In Iraq, its influence is greater than that of any other regional power. Iran's closest Iraqi ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, did not do well in recent provincial elections, but Tehran's ties to the political party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and to the Sadrist movement, a Shia party built around Muqtada al-Sadr -- both of which fared better in provincial elections -- remain strong. Meanwhile, Hamas, Iran's longtime client, emerged from this winter's war against Israeli forces in Gaza bloodied but unbowed, much as Iran's ally Hezbollah did from its own war with Israel in 2006. Hamas and Hezbollah now dictate the course of politics in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively -- far more so than the central governments controlled by "moderate" Arabs with pro-Western inclinations.
Still, the game is far from over. In fact, it never ends. After World War II, the Hashemite kings of Iraq and Jordan hoped to unite the Arab world under their leadership. They played politics in Syria and among Palestinians to garner support for Arab nationalism. In the late 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser used Arab nationalism and a confrontational stance toward Israel to rally Arab public opinion behind his leadership and pressure Arab governments to do his will. Nasser looked to be a winner when he united Syria and Egypt in the United Arab Republic and helped cause the downfall of Iraq's pro-Western monarchy. But regional alliances soon formed to balance against him, and eventually, Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War fully ended Nasser's regional appeal.
After the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hoped that the Islamic Revolution would spread beyond Iran's borders. He had some luck in Lebanon -- where Iran created Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of 1982 -- and elsewhere. But Khomeini's revolution had limited appeal, and ultimately, no Arab government fell to a sister revolution. Saddam, who played an important role in checking Iran's power, learned a similar lesson during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. He combined Arab nationalism with Islamism to try to create instability in Arab states that had joined the coalition against him. He failed.
The U.S. government can learn three lessons from this history. First, the United States is not the only player that has failed to organize the Middle East under its own leadership and power. Lots of local players who understand the region much better than the United States have failed as well. Iran, for example, is unlikely to consolidate its regional hegemony either, so Washington should not overreact to Iran's tactical victories.
Second, since the game is played in the region's weaker states, where Tehran has recently done well, Washington should try to strengthen the central governments there. Iraq is a case in point. A year ago, Prime Minister Maliki appeared so weak as to be almost irrelevant, but now he seems to be emerging as the strongman of Iraqi politics. Washington helped him get there, and it makes sense to continue supporting him -- even at the price of tension with America's Kurdish allies (who fear that Maliki's plans for a strong central government will lessen their autonomy). With the United States planning a military withdrawal, American influence over Iraqi politics is a wasting asset, but Washington can still use it to improve, on the margins, the governing capacity of the Iraqi state.
Third, the United States should also pay close attention to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Iran's rulers -- much like Nasser, Khomeini, and Saddam in the past -- use the Palestinian issue to mobilize popular support at home and pressure pro-American governments throughout the region. At the moment, conditions are not propitious for solving the Palestinian question, and the results of the recent Israeli elections make them even less so. Strengthening the Palestinian Authority would be a positive step, but it would require reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah of a sort that seems distant. So working through Syria looks like a more promising approach -- as the Obama administration has apparently recognized, judging from the recent stirrings of diplomatic activity on this front.
Israel and Syria have been negotiating indirectly for some time through Turkey -- although Syria suspended talks during the war in Gaza -- and the outlines of a settlement are clear. If Washington could help broker a Syrian-Israeli deal, it would open up some distance between Tehran and Damascus, refute Iran's argument that confrontation pays, and give new momentum to the idea that the larger Arab-Israeli conflict is moving toward resolution.
Using traditional tools of influence to counter opponents and shift the strategic orientation of secondary regional actors would be a classic move -- and just the sort to get the United States right back in the game.