A few thoughts on why the whole world is stumbling around in a daze when it comes to dealing with the Mideast…
The Mideast socio-political onion can be peeled to reveal a multitude of different levels of the “truth.” The level showing the whole Mideast as the victim of Western (including Israeli and Russian) interference is a persuasive one. An alternative level of rising relevance is Saudi-Iranian competition for regional control. A third level is the story of modernization (not necessarily implying Westernization). Interaction among levels must also be considered: Western interference both intensifies Saudi-Iranian competition and is intensified by that competition, for example. Similarly, both Arabs and Iranians have at various historical periods had cultures arguably the most sophisticated in the world, but each group now finds itself far behind to a great extent because of external manipulation: when the process of modernization takes center stage in a society, the degree to which that society is independent to make its own decisions makes a great deal of difference.
One would like to inquire into the chicken-and-egg question of which level comes first, but the question has no answer because an infinite array of causal pressures operate simultaneously. That does not mean the question, false though it may be in its simplistic form, does not merit investigation, however, because at any time a decision by a significant external player to resist the temptation to flood the region with armaments or to implement a historic policy of focusing its resources on positive actions to help the region rather than negative actions to take advantage of the region or simply to coerce it could serve as a significant tipping point. A current example is the opportunity presented by the fact that about a quarter of Syria’s entire population is now outside Syria and looking for a place to live. Imagine the impact of some state welcoming these millions and offering them the opportunity to create a new society! War is not the only possible response to events one does not like: those states that do not appreciate Moscow’s sudden aggressiveness in the Mideast over the last several months have the option of taking those Syrians Moscow does not want in its new little empire and creating a new and improved model of “Syria.”
If one cannot determine which image of Mideast reality is causal (for all the images, or levels, are “true” in the limited sense that they actually exist and influence events), one can at least attempt to keep all of them in mind whenever trying to figure out what is actually happening. So doing will make much more reasonable any subsequent discussion of such questions as, “What are U.S. national interests?” or “Can we make a positive difference?” [The U.S. has repeatedly demonstrated quite effectively that it has the capability to make a negative difference: it is very good at smashing stuff, and, not to pick on Washington, Moscow has also just recently demonstrated its own ability to “cure the disease by killing the patient.”]
In order to select a proper state policy toward the Mideast, then, one must ask how a candidate policy will affect each layer of the onion independently and also consider the impact of that impact resulting from the inherent interactions that occur between the layer under evaluation and other layers. In contrast, if one starts by assuming that the real story of the Mideast is simply Sunni-Shi’i competition or simply aggression by whatever sect one happens not to like at the moment or simply the result of evil Western interference, then one will “simply” be assured that whatever policy one selects will be doomed to failure.
If the worst strategy is giving up, then getting down in the gutter with those who insist on trying to kill you (be they independent actors or states) is the second worse. It works best against lone criminals, worst against mistreated societies.
When the enemy lives off violence, what the defensive force may have believed was a strategy turns out to be nothing more than a counter-productive, very short-term tactic. At best, it only gets the defender a moment’s respite for finding a real strategy.
The real strategy is not surgery but addressing the causes.