Kissinger, Kerry, Kushner

During the recent Gaza skirmish (so it will go down in history, I predict), some journalists and opinion writers rushed to declare the demise of the Abraham Accords. 

I won’t mention names, but these were some of the headlines: “The mirage of Trump’s ’peace’ deals” (Washington Post), “Violence Shakes Trump’s Boast of ‘New Middle East’” (New York Times), “Not worth the paper they are written on” (Independent), “Jared Kushner’s Middle East fantasy explodes” (CNN), etc. At least two headlines went even further: “How the Abraham Accords Precipitated New Israeli-Palestinian Violence” (US News), and “So much for the Abraham Accords. Trump made things worse in the Middle East” (Washington Post).

I don’t take any of this seriously, and neither should you. I wrote the following at the invitation of a student-run publication, the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, at the Harvard Kennedy School. The message, especially to surly folks liable to dismiss anything achieved by the Trump administration, is this: get over it and build on the Abraham Accords. They’re one of the best things America has going for it in the Middle East.

Title of the piece, reproduced below: “Kissinger, Kerry, Kushner: Making and Missing Peace in the Middle East.” You can also download the journal version here. (And please excuse all the Harvard references. I couldn’t resist.)

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After Henry Kissinger (class of 1950), the Harvard undergraduate alumnus who has had the most profound effect on the Middle East to date is Jared Kushner (class of 2003), son-in-law of President Donald Trump and architect of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Ponder the irony. Harvard has produced a cavalcade of experts on the Middle East, both practitioners and scholars, with far more knowledge of the region than Kushner’s. “I’ve been studying this now for three years,” Kushner said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year. “I’ve read 25 books on it, I’ve spoken to every leader in the region, I’ve spoken to everyone who’s been involved in this.”[1] That was his primer for his role as broker, first, of Trump’s “Vision for Peace” (aka “The Deal of the Century”) and later, the breakthrough agreements between Israel and four Arab states. 

By conventional standards, Kushner was “winging it.” But in policy making, as in real estate, success begins with location. Kushner (and his sidekick, Harvard Law alumnus Avi Berkowitz, class of 2016), ended up in the White House riding an unpredictable wave in American politics. These twists of fate are not rare; to the contrary, they are par for the course of history. The events that put Kissinger in the Middle Eastern cockpit fifty years ago were no more predictable. 

Still, being in the right place is never enough. One has to grasp the meaning of the moment. Jared Kushner understood something fundamental about the Middle East that had eluded the long line of secretaries, deputy secretaries, advisers, envoys, and ambassadors who had preceded him. Having read his 25 books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he realized that not all Arabs were in its grip. 

This was a truth that Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, hadn’t fathomed. Kerry, who had tried his hand in the Middle East right before Kushner, will never live down his 2016 statement, preserved on YouTube and gleefully retweeted thousands of times this past year: 

There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear with all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, “Well, the Arab world is in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them. We can work some things with the Arab world, and we’ll deal with the Palestinians.” No. No, no, and no.[2]

Kushner didn’t dismiss the view of Israel’s “prominent politicians,” but actually put it to the test, and ended up eliciting four “yeses,” first from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, then followed by Sudan and Morocco. 

Why did Kerry miss what Kushner saw? Some commentators have portrayed Kerry, and indeed the entire “peace process” establishment, as blinded by bias. But the simpler explanation is a generational difference in the American view of the Arabs. There is an older generation for whom the Arab world appeared driven by ideologies and passions, and a younger generation who see it governed by states and interests. 

Kerry, born in 1943, studied political science at Yale when Gamal Abdul Nasser was still riding the crest of pan-Arab sentiment. After 1967, following the emasculation of Nasser, the Arabs seemed to have invested every thought and emotion in the cause of the Palestinians, who violently burst upon the world scene beginning with Black September in 1970. Kerry belonged to the tail-end of the generation that saw the Arabs through the Palestinian prism. “Is the Israel-Palestine conflict still the key to peace in the whole region?” Jimmy Carter was once asked. “Without doubt,” he answered, “the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.”[3] In the estimate of the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”[4] And to be fair, in the past the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was both combustible and galvanizing. 

But it ceased to be that over time. Thanks to the deal-brokering begun by Kissinger, Israel stopped being regarded in the Arab world as the prime threat to the integrity and stability of Arab states. Peace agreements and American patronage hemmed Israel in. In the place of the Israeli danger, other threats arose: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which in 1990 briefly erased an Arab state, Kuwait, from the map; and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, which energized Shiite minorities against Arab governments. 

When Kushner, born in 1981, came to study at Harvard, the Middle East looked entirely different than it had to Kerry at Yale. The Palestinians had lost their privileged position among the Arabs, first by allying with Saddam, and then by entering the Oslo Accords. State interests had washed ideology and passion out of Arab politics. 

Of course, Arab states had been making their own calculations for years. Egypt and Jordan had reached peace agreements with Israel, and other Arab states had low-profile ties. But while the trajectory was clear, the old hands still couldn’t trace the arc. Kushner, on the other hand, saw the obvious: many Arabs had more important priorities than rallying around the Palestinians.

He also located the tipping point of this sentiment in the Arab Gulf states. For Americans of Kerry’s generation, “the Arabs” came from Beirut and Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Americans had a foothold in oil-producing Saudi Arabia, but the rest of the littoral of the Arab Gulf was “flyover country” run by the British. 

The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar didn’t gain independence until 1971. Even then, they weren’t much to write home about. The late Roger Owen, professor of Middle Eastern history at Harvard, evoked the ambience in recalling a visit he made to two of the Emirates in the 1970s: “Abu Dhabi and Sharjah seemed only to come alive when a British Overseas Airways—after 1974, a British Air plane—arrived at dusk, when Land Rovers raced out to meet it, and the passengers disbursed slowly in the evening heat.”[5]

By Kushner’s time, these same emirates had become the Arab world’s glittering “Gold Coast,” centers of fabulous wealth wedded to unashamed pragmatism. The old ideologies that had grown like weeds elsewhere in the Arab world never struck root in the sands surrounding the skyscrapers of the Arab Gulf. Here were places that had “come alive” in a spectacular way, and where Arabs broke taboos every day. 

Yet even this wouldn’t have sufficed to produce a breakthrough. Kushner understood the dread felt by these small Arab states over Iran, and how Israel’s sounding of the alarm resonated with them. In the game with Iran, Arab Gulf states and Israel stood near one another on the scrimmage line, and neither had full confidence in the parade of American quarterbacks, each with a different game plan. 

A question facing any future historian will be this: was the “Deal of the Century,” with its implicit endorsement of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, designed in advance as a throwaway, to facilitate the Abraham Accords? Whatever the answer, that is precisely the purpose it ultimately served. “We had been talking to both sides for 18 months,” said a senior American official, “but the annexation issue created the atmosphere which was conducive for getting a deal.”[6] If it was so designed in advance, then far from being a “dead-on-arrival” plan, it was a strategic feint worthy of a Kissinger. If not, it was a deft last-minute shift of gears. 

Whatever the back story, however, the Abraham Accords and their sequels have introduced a new vector in the Middle East. The most creative and dynamic shorelines on the Mediterranean and the Gulf are now linked. They are the counter to the forty-year bond between Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which also links the Mediterranean and the Gulf. There is much potential in this fledgling alignment; how much of it will be realized depends on the ingenuity of Israelis and Gulf Arabs alike. 

But it also depends on the attitude of the United States. Certainly, it has been hard for the old hands of the Democratic foreign policy establishment to concede that Kushner, wet behind the ears, achieved something that had eluded them. They should get over it. One doesn’t have to believe that Kushner (and Berkowitz) deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, though Harvard emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz has nominated them for one, but one must admit that they got this right. 

Remember that Jimmy Carter didn’t toss out the Middle East achievements of Richard Nixon and Kissinger, but built them out into a new security architecture for the Middle East. President Biden should consider that precedent and think hard about how to capitalize on the achievements of Trump and Kushner. That need not mean abandoning the quest for a resolution of the Palestinian question. It need not mean locking the door to Iran forever. It does mean nurturing the cooperative spirit of the Abraham Accords. These US-brokered agreements give the United States a strategic edge. In the Middle East, America needs that more than ever. 

Martin Kramer is chair of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and the Walter P. Stern Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He co-founded and edited the website Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) in the late 2000s.

Endnotes 

1. Kushner interview with Sky News Arabia, January 29, 2020.

2. “Remarks at the Saban Forum,” U.S. Department of State, 4 December 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/264824.htm

3. Nathaniel Gardels, “Jimmy Carter takes on Israel’s Apartheid Policies and the Pro-Israeli Lobby in the US,” Huffington Post, 12 December 2006. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jimmy-carter-takes-on-isr_b_36134

4. Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Lowered Vision,” The New Republic, 7 June 2004. https://newrepublic.com/article/67609/lowered-vision

5. Roger Owen, A Life in Middle East Studies (Fairfax, VA: Tadween Publishing, 2016), p. 117. 

6. Barak Ravid, “Behind the scenes: How the Israel-UAE deal came together,” Axios, 13 August 2020. https://www.axios.com/how-the-israel-uae-recognition-deal-came-together-d0d45b2e-b2c7-4593-b72a-0ef99ec96233.html

The Trump plan: history doesn’t run in reverse

On February 5, Gregg Roman of the Middle East Forum interviewed me on the Trump plan for Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve written about it elsewhere; in the interview, I offer some further reflections. (If you prefer, click here to listen.)

MEF: What’s your take on the Trump peace plan?

Kramer: Well, the first thing you have to do is separate analysis of the plan from the partisan political atmosphere that prevails the United States today, and just look at the plan on its merits and limitations. I understand that’s hard to do, but it’s really important because otherwise, you’re letting your political prejudice influence your analysis, and we want to neutralize that.

The plan has three key levels of analysis that you could do. There are the assumptions of the plan; there are the principles of the plan; and there are the details of the plan. It’s important not to reverse the order of discussion and get lost in the details before you look at the assumptions and the principles.

The core assumption is that the end of the conflict is important. [Otherwise,] why have a proposal? There have been administrations that didn’t make a proposal. The Obama administration basically dropped the whole issue at one point, and focused elsewhere. The idea that resolving the conflict could have a positive effect on the US position in the Middle East and on Israel’s position in the Middle East, is the basic underlying assumption of this initiative.

There’s a bit of linkage here—in other words, it’s important because it connects with the way the US is perceived in the region and the way Israel is perceived in the region.

So that’s one core assumption. The second core assumption is that you can’t reverse history, history only goes in one direction.

And that’s reflected in the principles. Now there are two key principles here. One is that there’s no way that you’re going to see the massive movement of peoples or parts of peoples as a consequence of, or as an element in, any solution. What does that mean? Anyone who thinks that 80,000, or 50,000, or 20,000 settlers can be removed from settlements under any political constellation which is imaginable in Israel today, is simply dreaming. It’s not going to happen.

And the second, that anyone who imagines that the West Bank or Gaza could absorb other huge numbers of Palestinian refugees—really, descendants of refugees—from other countries, is also dreaming.

So everyone stays in place in this plan. And I think that’s a core principle.

Another core principle—and you can’t get around it—is that the United States remains committed to a two-state solution. It has been since 1947. Even a man now described as Israel’s best friend ever still cannot put a plan on the table that doesn’t highlight two states.

The rest are details. We can discuss the details; [but] I think that they’re the most flexible part of the plan. In fact, Jared Kushner indicated they’re all open to negotiation. I’d say that even includes Jerusalem; it certainly includes the borders that are proposed on the conceptual map.

So, in a way, it’s pointless to get lost in the details at this point. It’s much more important to focus on the assumptions and the principles.

MEF: So let’s talk about the conditioning of the Palestinian people before we even have any principles associated with the peace deal. Because as far as they’re concerned, anything that this president or Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu offers to them, they’ll say no. A hundred years of Palestinian rejectionism.

And I’m sure you’re familiar with the campaign that the Middle East Forum ran in Israel last summer, associated with our Israel Victory Project: the idea that you can only make peace with defeated enemies, those who recognize a sense of defeat. What’s your take on that idea? Do you think that there’s a way for the Palestinians to give up on sumud, their “steadfastness,” the rejectionism, sarbanut as it’s called in Hebrew, or are we in for this for another hundred years?

Kramer: Look, let me first begin by making a minor correction to the way you described the plan. You called it a “peace plan.” It’s not a peace plan, it’s a partition plan. And a partition plan doesn’t have to be accepted—no partition was ever accepted by the Palestinians—in order to have historic effects. The 1947 plan by the United Nations, which was accepted by the Zionist movement, and was rejected by the Palestinians, still had transformative historic effects: creation of the State of Israel.

What characterizes a partition plan, is that basically it’s a proposal of a third party, looking from the outside, that has some authority, whether it be the British in 1937 when they proposed a partition plan, or the United Nations in 1947, or the United States today. So in a way, the importance of the plan transcends whether either of the parties accepts it.

And I don’t think that the Palestinians can accept it, or will accept it, given the state of their myth-making in their political vision. There are plenty of elements in the plan which Israel really can’t accept either, although Israel will accept the assumptions and the principles without accepting necessarily the details.

But that doesn’t mean that the plan won’t have an effect. The question is, even if the plan is never implemented (and it will never be implemented in all its details), what will be its historic effect?

What will be transformative here for the Palestinians is that they will begin to understand that history only runs in one direction, and the world is moving gradually to an accommodation with the facts of history. The Palestinians haven’t done that. And the reason they haven’t—part of the reason—isn’t just because they’re hidebound. It’s because the world has told them again and again that history can be reversed. Even the United States at various times has told them that history can be reversed. When people stop telling Palestinians that history can be reversed, that is the beginning of wisdom for the Palestinians. That’s the effect of the plan.

And that’s why the plan is so important. It begins with the United States, it will percolate to other states in the West and Arab states, and the Palestinians will begin to understand that their demand for the reversal of history has no support from anyone else.

MEF: You write, in an article that you wrote on the 102nd anniversary of the Balfour plan on October 31 of last year, regarding this issue, that the declaration “did clearly mark the beginning of the end of the Jewish problem as Weizmann and the Zionists understood it: a total absence of power that left the Jews as wanderers, vulnerable and weak.” What will it take to realize, on the Palestinian side, that there is a vacuum of power there, they have no legitimacy in the eyes of many Arab states (in the eyes of the Arab populations, maybe)? They have no ability to tell their leaders what to do unless they openly revolt and even if that happened, the IDF might come in and save those leaders who are providing sort of a Faustian bargain for security as it relates right now to, at least, the West Bank. And they’re suffering; their brand is crisis. How do we get the Palestinians to realize, like the Jews realized—I guess it was 1948, seventy-two years ago now—that the gig is up, you’ve lost, it’s time to develop your own polity not based on rejecting another. How do we get there?

Kramer: Well, you just did it yourself. You have to begin to tell them the truth. Now coming from Martin Kramer, or from you, it will have no effect on them whatsoever. But when they start to hear it from the very same quarters which historically and traditionally have been supportive of their demands, then that will begin to have an effect.

And that’s why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what’s really important, [in order] for the Trump plan to have that historic effect, [is that it] be marketed to the Europeans, to the Russians, to the Arabs, so that while they may not endorse it—in fact, very few of them will openly endorse it and many will reject it—they will begin to echo some of the assumptions and principles that are in the plan, and go to the Palestinians and say: “Look, we understand why you reject the plan, it’s full of flaws, and so on and so on. But the basic assumptions and principles have some validity.” And when the Palestinians begin to hear that from friends—not from you and me but from their friends—then that will have an effect.

Much of the responsibility for the predicament of the Palestinians today lies not just on them but on their friends, or would-be friends, or supposed friends, who lied to them, misled them and promised they would deliver to them on fantasies, which were completely detached from reality.

I think Jared Kushner wouldn’t see the Trump plan as some unilateral American act. Even the Balfour Declaration was cleared with all Britain’s allies in advance, as I showed that in an earlier study. It was like a Security Council resolution in practice. The US has put this plan on the table. Now what it has to do is, not to get the endorsement of the full plan from anyone, but get other parties to echo elements of its assumptions and principles, and play those back to the Palestinians.

U.S. strategy in the Middle East (unclassified)

On December 4, I spoke at a new forum devoted to articulating a “grand strategy” for Israel, led by former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. The day was devoted to understanding the strategies of other states, and I drew the assignment to characterize U.S. strategy. What follows is description, not prescription.

Let me begin with an observation which may seem paradoxical, given the amount of attention we lavish on the Middle East and the fact that I’m a Middle East expert. The Middle East is not a region of overriding U.S. interest. The value of what it produces, excluding oil, is small, and its militaries are largely weak and ineffectual. This limits both the promise and the danger inherent in the region, which traditionally figured somewhere in the middle or lower end of U.S. strategic concerns. The United States was prepared to expend much blood and treasure to put Europe and the Pacific rim on the track to peace and stability. It has never accorded the Middle East the same worth, and the usual approach has been to try to preserve U.S. interests in the region on the cheap.

The United States has four core interests in the Middle East: the free flow of oil, the security of Israel, countering terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that would allow Middle Eastern pathologies to spill over and endanger the world. On occasion, some have tried to add the promotion of human rights or democracy to this short list of interests. When that has happened, under the impetus of a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, it’s lasted for a few years, and then dropped off. Democracy and human rights are nice-to-haves for the United States. They are not need-to-haves.

Some might imagine that it is (or should be) a U.S. objective to keep all other powers out of the Middle East. In fact, at no point has the United States believed that upholding the four core U.S. interests requires the exclusion of other powers. Europe, Russia, and China dish out aid, do business, sell arms, and support clients. The United States tolerates their presence, because its own presence is so dominant, and because considerable parts of the Middle East aren’t worth the costs of competing.

To preserve its four core interests, the United States has traditionally adhered to four basic strategies. I’ve given them names for the sake of convenience, but they are my names, and you won’t find them in any American document. They are: delegating, delinking, pairing, and flipping. I’ll explain each one in turn, but what they all have in common is that they are meant to achieve U.S. objectives at the lowest possible cost.

Delegating. Most great empires that have dominated the Middle East had to do so by putting boots on the ground—or, if you want to go all the way back to antiquity, sandals on the ground. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the British—to name a few—incorporated the region in their imperial systems by garrisoning it. The United States has traditionally preferred a different and more economical approach, seeking to dominate the region through allies, clients, friends, and proxies. The United States sells arms, conducts diplomacy, shares intelligence, runs some special ops, launches cruise missiles (and now drones)—everything short of landing the American soldier in full battle gear. When that soldier has been deployed, it has been in extraordinary circumstances, and has had the character of an aberration. The 1958 intervention in Lebanon, the 1982 dispatch of Marines to Beirut, the 1991 Gulf war—these were all short-lived interventions with narrow purposes.

The 2003 Iraq war, along with the Afghan war, were dramatic deviations from the norm—uncharacteristic attempts at nation-building. 9/11 broke the continuity of the American approach, culminating in George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” He openly acknowledged that it constituted a sharp departure from traditional U.S. policy, and we are now in the midst of a reversion to the norm. The usual American approach has been to back its friends from a distance, to provision them to fight battles on their own, and to use its technological advantages to deal with threats at a distance. What is the right distance? I commend to you the article in the current GQ entitled “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.” The ideal distance, it turns out, is a hangar somewhere in Nevada. That’s the American way, and it becomes ever more attractive as technology advances.

The bedrock of these U.S. ties is now cooperation in the “war on terror.” 9/11 demonstrated that mass-casualty terrorism against Americans could shift U.S. opinion, distorting cost-benefit analysis in decisions to use force. To avoid a slide back into the region, the United States does everything necessary to keep Al Qaeda wannabes on the run and on their heels. Whenever the United States puts this one boot in, it is precisely in order to keep the other boot out.

Delinking. This second strategy seeks to separate the two areas of endemic conflict, the Israel-centered system and the oil-centered system. After 1948, the Saudis would regularly threaten that U.S. support for Israel could damage U.S. relations with Arab oil producers. Despite this, the United States managed to keep both Israel and the Saudis in tow. But in 1973, in response to an Arab-Israeli war, the Arab oil producers imposed an oil embargo on the United States, driving prices sky high, forcing the United States to ration gasoline, and prompting a recession.

Since then, a basic principle of U.S. strategy has been to delink the Israel-centered and the oil-centered systems, in order to block any chain reaction across the Middle East. It achieved that, first, deliberately, by brokering an Egyptian-Israeli peace that made another big Arab-Israeli war unlikely; and second, inadvertently, by standing by while Khomeini overthrew the Shah, leaving the Saudis and others no choice but to shelter in America’s bosom. Remember that delinking assumes linkage—that the link is real and so has to be broken. The average U.S. policymaker believes in linkage, and many of them think that the fastest way to delink the two systems is progress toward “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Even a process that doesn’t produce a final agreement has the ongoing effect of lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the oil-centered system.

Pairing. This consists of finding two adversaries whose rivalry is destabilizing, and knocking their heads together or plying them with incentives to bring them under one American umbrella. Until the Iranian revolution, the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, perennial rivals, constituted the “two pillars” of U.S. influence in the Gulf, which Washington kept in careful balance. After 1979, Israel and Egypt constituted the stabilizing duo in the Eastern Mediterranean. By definition, pairing means creating an unnatural alliance of wary partners—creating a triangle in which the United States forms the long side. A well-constructed triangle will leave the outsider twisting in the wind. The Egypt-Israel pair did that to Syria, and the Saudi-Iranian pair once boxed in Iraq.

The Iranian revolution broke up the crucial pairing in the Gulf, and one of the endemic problems of U.S. strategy has been the difficulty of forging an alternative. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Iraq paired against Iran, but that ended disastrously when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s left the Saudis isolated. The removal of Saddam was supposed to make Iraq amenable once again to pairing with the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs. But a Shiite-dominated Iraq was destined to remain aloof from Saudi Arabia, and open to the influence of Iran. Absent a pairing for the Saudis and Gulf Arabs, the United States has had to play the role of the other half, in a costly way.

Flipping. Which brings me to the fourth strategy. Flipping involves engaging an adversary and turning him around. The classic instance was Egypt, which had been a militantly pan-Arab, stridently anti-American Soviet client state, and which the United States flipped into its own orbit. The idea is to focus on that state which is most disruptive of your interests, and slowly drive it to the conclusion that it can’t afford to remain outside the American tent. Why flipping? Containment is hard to preserve against erosion, and it tends to punish peoples more than their rulers. Regime change is risky and fraught with unintended consequences. Flipping isn’t easy, but when it works, it’s regarded as the most economical of all outcomes.

Much fog surrounds the Iran plan of the Obama administration, but the United States could be trying to solve its endemic problem in the Persian Gulf by flipping Iran. The nuclear deal could be an opening to a wider dialogue with Iran, which would bring Iran into some sort of strategic relationship with the United States, on terms no one can predict. In this scenario, the United States would seek to repeat the flipping of Egypt—this time, without a war to facilitate the last stage. Flipping presumes that for every Nasser there is a Sadat (read: Ahmedinejad, Rouhani), and that everyone has their price. It also presumes that the United States can drive down the price by a mix of incentives and threats. No one in the Obama administration dares hint today that this is the longer-term strategy, but it’s no doubt hiding in the back of many minds.

On the basis of what I’ve just outlined, it is useful to think of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East not as a retreat (or “appeasement”) but as an effort to get back to what worked for the United States in the past. It is a nostalgic project. And as we know from public opinion polling, that is just what Americans want. They wish to go back to the good old days, when a few clever people in pinstripe suits and a few well-placed intel assets could keep the Middle East on the back burner where it belongs.

There is much to be said for the argument that American obsessing about the Middle East has been a distraction from more important agendas. But preserving the four key interests I mentioned earlier requires an ongoing and determined effort to play a skilled game. The United States claims it intends to remain engaged in the Middle East. As it repositions itself, the credibility of that claim is sure to be tested.