Foreign policy, including the use of military power, isn't an end in itself. It consists of tools and instruments designed to achieve specific and hopefully well-thought-out ends. Those ends -- let's call them interests -- are theoretically supposed to drive a country's foreign-policy strategy. Sounds pretty simple, right?
So what are America's interests in the Middle East? Are there core goals and priorities that are more important than others? Does the country pretend certain things are more important than they really are? And how do you think it is doing in protecting those interests?
These are really good questions, and they're not asked nearly enough. One reason is that since 1945, when the United States began to get its feet wet in the region, largely as a consequence of oil, Israel, and the Russians -- that complex triumvirate of things it was trying to either protect or guard against -- its core interests have remained pretty much the same.
Today, if you take the Russian bogeyman out of the picture (sorry Mitt), add Islamists and counterterrorism, and subtract a few Arab dictators and authoritarians, U.S. interests remain pretty much the same.
And despite all the charges of bias, dysfunction, and incompetence leveled at the United States, the country has actually done a pretty good job at protecting those interests. The Soviets never really made inroads in the Middle East, and eventually collapsed. The oil kept flowing from the Persian Gulf. And there was even progress -- under American auspices -- on the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Granted, the United States had a couple of oil shocks (1973 and 1979) and a half dozen Arab-Israeli wars, and America's Arab street cred is way down because the country has cut a devil's bargain with more than a few authoritarian rulers and because it staunchly supports Israel.
But hey, you know what? It's not so easy being a great power. And it's really hard to keep everybody happy. If you want unconditional love and affection, get a puppy.
Indeed, had it not been for President George W. Bush's trillion-dollar social science project in Iraq and President Barack Obama's initial tendency to create inflated expectations on both the Israeli-Palestinian issue and what the United States could do to bring democracy to the region, America would even be in better shape.
So what are America's vital national interests in the region today -- the matters it considers the core of its relationship with the Middle East?