It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.
When Jefferson was inaugurated and refused further payment of tribute, the flag in front of the U.S. Consulate in Tripoli was hacked down, and hostilities commenced.American intentions have been going awry in the Middle East since then. President Eisenhower sided with Egypt’s President Nasser against Israel, Britain and France in the Suez crisis. Nasser repaid him by aligning with the Soviet Union. President Carter urged the Shah to leave Iran; the resulting revolution helped wreck his chances of re-election. President Reagan’s biggest blunders—the dispatch of marines to Beirut and the Oliver North mission to Iran—were in the Middle East. President George H. W. Bush’s victory in the Gulf War left Saddam Hussein in power and left the U.S. committed to the unsustainable “dual containment” policy in its wake—and the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia were the reason Osama bin Laden launched Al-Qaeda. President Clinton put all his political capital on the line to get the most generous offer the Israelis had made to the Palestinians since 1947; and he failed to get an agreement. Of President George W. Bush in the region there is little need to speak.The pundits are jumping all over the Obama Middle East record today, and there is much to deplore. But that criticism needs to be tempered. President Obama, contemplating a Middle East in flames that he can neither transform nor abandon, stands in a long line of American presidents who have not found this region to be a field of dreams. (One lesson to his successors: get your Nobel Peace Prize early in your presidency. It only gets harder, the longer things drag on.)The Middle East is an unforgiving environment for American presidents in which mistakes are easy to make and all your mistakes are sure to haunt you. There are no magic formulas that will bring success here, but struggling with the region, its intractable problems, and the consequences of the failures and missteps of your predecessors is part of what it means to be President of the United States.At this point, President Obama needs to focus on the main issue: Iran. Stopping the nuclear program without war remains the paramount goal of U.S. policy in the region; other issues can be dealt with later. Having the capacity and the will to break Iran’s hold on Syria and Lebanon is an important bargaining chip in this process; the President must make sure he holds those cards. Aligning Israel’s timetable with America’s on the Iran issue is part of the process; this will not be easy, but it must be pursued.Beyond that, continuing to develop the relationship with Turkey, looking for political solutions to the violence in Syria that address the concerns of minority communities, working patiently and behind the scenes in Egypt with those committed to stopping the Salafi push, promoting some kind of stable government in Libya and dealing with violent radicals from Mali to Yemen remain at the forefront of the agenda.It’s a messy agenda that won’t bring a lot of joy to the United States or to many people in the region. No President can get it all done, and there will certainly be failures and traumas while working these issues. But there aren’t any real alternatives and the region remains too important to ignore.And there is one thing to reflect on. Since Thomas Jefferson’s original unhappy encounter with the ambassador of the Barbary States, the U.S. has suffered one setback and disappointment in the Middle East after another. Our good intentions have often gone awry and we seem to sow dragons’ teeth no matter what we do. Yet at the same time, the United States has managed through thick and thin to advance and defend our core interests in the region and over time, some core American values have gained a tenuous foothold. In the Middle East, the United States has a record of failing forward.It is not a particularly glorious or inspiring track record, but no outside power has done better.Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.