Is America washed up in the Middle East?

Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) is running a pile-on over this Fourth of July question: Has the American era in the Middle East ended? It’s in response to the arguments of Richard Haass, Fareed Zakaria, and others, that America just doesn’t have the pulling power it once had in the Middle East. There are twelve outstanding contributions in the MESH discussion at the moment. The sweeping consensus is that this sort of declinism is a cyclical fashion, and that America isn’t finished in the Middle East–not by a long shot. Read the entire post.

Below is my own contribution. Not only do I think the American era hasn’t ended. I suggest that America hasn’t even begun to fight.

America’s era in the Middle East has only just begun. Until 2003, the United States was positioned off-shore, attempting to manage the region through diplomacy, aid, arms sales, and the occasional cruise missile. Since the Iraq invasion, the United States has immersed itself in the nitty-gritty of engineering the reconstruction of a major Arab state. In the process, it has made just about every possible mistake, but it has also learned almost every possible lesson, and we see the results in gains made in Iraq. The knowledge acquired in Iraq, by trial and error, has put the United States on par with Britain and France at the height of their sway over the Middle East.

The Middle East is full of what America wants and needs: dictatorships to be broken, oil to be explored and exported, a religion in need of reformation. For Americans, the Middle East will never be analogous to southeast Asia, no matter how sticky it gets. But it probably won’t ever get that sticky: the region is sufficiently fragmented that the United States will never manage to enrage everyone at once. The United States is likely to remain on-shore in the Middle East, overtly or behind a veil, for a long time to come.

Only Americans can put an end to the American era, by talking themselves out of it. Elie Kedourie, in his famous essay “The Chatham House Version,” showed how the spread of declinism in Britain’s political elite forced the country’s total and abject abandonment of every British position in the Middle East. The drums of retreat are now being pounded by the American equivalents of Arnold Toynbee. But when Britain pulled up stakes, it knew the vacuum would be filled by America. If we leave, it will be Iran. (Haass has called Iran “a classic imperial power.”) Here is my prediction: America won’t let it happen.