The defining feature of the Middle East in 2008 is how utterly different it is from the region President Bush discovered when he entered the Oval Office. There is a “new Middle East”, but it is quite unlike the one many in Washington had hoped would emerge during this Administration.
The events of the past seven years demonstrate how manifestly unprepared the United States was for the challenges the Middle East presented. That the entire strategic landscape of the region has changed, and that much of the change has been caused by U.S. policy, adds a novel set of problems and a new layer of complexity to a place where so much is at stake for the United States. The next president will get to know the region well over the next four years, better than he will probably care to.
The themes of the current policy debate reflect disappointment and still some anxiety over the course of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the limits and counterproductive consequences of democracy promotion, and a sense of squandered and waning American power. President Bush clearly trapped himself in the lofty rhetoric of democratization, setting expectations far above the carrying capacity of objective reality. This self-wrought trap then limited the Administration’s options, making its choices appear to be either hypocritical or signs of weakness in the face of adversity. All this has led many policymakers, analysts and pundits to advocate retrenchment and more modesty when it comes to the Middle East.
Some retrenchment and more modesty are probably good things, but we must not overdo it. The United States has too many vital interests in the region to adopt a neo-isolationist attitude. The adjustments the next administration must make have to do not with a scaled-back conception of U.S. interests but rather with methods and tempo. As to methods, it is clear that many prevailing assumptions about the Middle East no longer apply, so old policy tools are unlikely to work as they once did, if at all. As to tempo, the next administration will need to moderate the metabolic rate, so to speak, of U.S. activities. There are times and places where less is more, and U.S. policy in the Middle East over the next four years will probably be a case in point. We cannot take on every problem we see all at once and expect to achieve our goals: This much, at least, the Bush Administration has taught us.
The next president will succeed in the Middle East if he seizes upon the right opportunities to stabilize Washington’s position, manage current crises and build a foundation for realizing larger goals beyond his first term....