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The Politically Incorrect Guide to U.S. Interests in the Middle East

Sorry, folks: America just doesn't care about freedom or Arab-Israeli peace all that much.

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?

Listen to how Obama answers the question. In a major speech in May 2011 dealing with what was then a more hopeful unfolding of the Arab Spring, he said the following:

For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, securing the free flow of commerce and safeguarding the security of the region, standing up for Israel's security, and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

But Obama then went on to add that those interests were insufficient to constitute America's entire foreign-policy strategy. "We must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind," the president said.

I'd give the president a B-minus for historical accuracy here and a C for honesty about American priorities. Only relatively recently has the United States been really serious about counterterrorism -- it has cherry-picked those countries that it doesn't mind having nukes (Israel, India) and those of much greater concern (North Korea, Pakistan, Iran). And though the peace process has been a priority at times, it has mostly been pursued haphazardly.

The president's views on democracy promotion also represent a real contradiction. By trying to wrap the pursuit of more traditional interests in a prettier box, Obama doesn't do himself or us any favors. Indeed, he raises the expectation -- his specialty -- that the United States, true to its democratic values and principles, will now rise up to decry tyranny, oppose the heavy hand of the authoritarian, and champion the popular will against oppression.

The only problem is: The country doesn't. The perpetuation of this fiction sets the United States up for charges of hypocrisy and carries the potential to undercut the very interests the president identifies as core.

To keep commerce free (I think Obama means oil), the United States supports the authoritarian Saudi kings. To keep the region secure, it backs the repressive Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, which gives the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet the port access that allows it to project power across the Gulf. And to stand up for Israel, the United States gives the Egyptian military $1.3 billion per year to protect the peace treaty and turn a blind eye while the generals protect their praetorian privileges. As far as championing the rights of the Arab peoples, see America's largely hands-off policy on Syria -- correct though I believe it to be.

I'm not complaining, mind you, just reporting. But the United States needs to be clear and stop pretending. There are certain things in this region it really cares about and that resonate powerfully at home, and others that don't -- and in any event are less susceptible to American influence, power, and persuasions.

Here's the politically incorrect and inconvenient version of American interests in the region. The United States has at least four vital national interests that it really cares deeply about. It is prepared to use force to protect all of them.

1. Stopping an attack on the continental United States with conventional and unconventional weapons. This is the big one. The organizing principle of a country's foreign policy is protection of the homeland. If you can't do that, you don't need a foreign policy. Americans are safer since the 9/11 attacks -- but not safe. There are still transnational groups that want to inflict catastrophic harm on the United States. The country will continue to spend the time and resources in an effort to stop them. The U.S. military will whack bad guys with drones whenever it can, regardless of the protestations of local governments.

2. Energy security. The good news for America is that it's weaning itself off Arab oil. The bad news is that oil is a single market. Supply disruptions and the challenge of making sure Persian Gulf oil doesn't fall into unfriendly hands -- or stop flowing entirely -- will be a core interest for as long as America and the world are dependent on hydrocarbons.

Want to worry about something? Worry about the House of Saud coming down. Oil is useless unless sold, but a regime change in Riyadh that triggered lengthy convulsions would be devastating for America and the world economy. So, staying true to the principles it really doesn't have, America will push what I call the "wink and nod" brand of reform from the Saudis (and also the Bahrainis, and the Kuwaitis, and the Qataris, and the Emiratis). And it'll use force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and to protect that tried-and-true democracy in Saudi Arabia.

3. Supporting Israel. I can already hear the "what do you mean supporting Israel is a core interest?" crowd rumbling in the back. Let the Israelis fend for themselves, it says. They don't deserve any special status, particularly when they ignore U.S. interests.

The fact is, America has allowed the "special relationship" to become far too exclusive and one-sided, and that's not good for Israel or America. Obama isn't all that enamored about the special bond either and would like to reset it -- but he can't do much about it at this particular political moment.

But none of that makes the case for supporting one of the few democracies that emerged in the wake of World War II any less compelling. Strict realists question the whole values argument, particularly given the Israeli occupation. But support for the security and well-being of Israel, with all its imperfections, is in accord with the broadest conception of the American national interest -- supporting like-minded societies.

Israel also resonates powerfully at home in political terms, and that's nothing to be ashamed of or defensive about. Even factoring in the power of the pro-Israeli community, the U.S.-Israel bond could not have survived for this long without the support of millions of Americans -- not just Jews and evangelicals -- who believe in it too. In a democracy, you need a sustainable domestic base for any long-running policy. There's just no way U.S. support for Israel would have lasted 60-plus years if enough Americans didn't sign off on it.

There's a fourth point that I reluctantly put in this category of vital national security interests -- though I'm not at all sure about it, particularly on whether the United States should be prepared to use military force.

4. Stopping Iran from getting the bomb. I have to be honest: I thought a good deal about not putting this one in the core category. Don't get me wrong; you'd have to be interminably obtuse to conclude that Iran with nukes would be anything other than a disaster. It would raise regional tensions, buck up Iran's regional ambitions, escalate the Israeli-Iranian covert (and maybe overt) war, and probably set off a regional arms race.

And there's no doubt the Obama administration is exerting great effort to stop or delay Iran's program. It has implemented powerful sanctions and embarked on negotiations with a weakened but not chastened Islamic Republic, as dubious as their prospects are.

Still, I'm not at all persuaded the president's heart is in this one. On Iran, he's clearly the "not now" president -- and I suspect he would just like the whole issue to go away. He and the mullahs probably share a common goal: stop or delay an Israeli strike for as long as possible. The president doesn't want to see Iran with nukes, but he worries even more about an Israeli or American military strike.

The Israelis may well force the president's hand at some point -- striking Iran and triggering a U.S. intervention too. But this president will go to great lengths to prevent that. He knows that hitting Iran's nuclear sites will only set the program back a couple of years. Perhaps he's prepared -- and his successors would be too -- for a strategy of striking Iran's nuclear facilities every so often, like some grand game of whack-a-mole (the Israelis call it "mowing the lawn"). But I'm not sure that's a sustainable policy.

The fact is, there's probably only one country that can stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity, and that's Iran. But I'm not at all sure Tehran will determine that the costs of its nuclear program are prohibitive. Indeed, the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime will only sharpen Iran's sense of vulnerability and accelerate its quest for a weapon.

If Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hadn't overthrown the shah in 1979, Iran would be a nuclear weapons state today. Why? Because the four countries that have developed nuclear weapons in the past several decades -- Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea -- are all fundamentally insecure. They were determined to acquire nukes and had the means and motivation to pull it off. Iran is the poster child for insecurity, but it's even more than that. Throw in its conception of itself as a great power, its regional ambitions, and its grandiosity, and poof -- you're on the road to Nukeville.

The odds that the United States can stop the mullahs from acquiring the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, should they truly want one, are long indeed. With regard to military action, the risks are probably overstated. It's the efficacy that bothers me. Will a military campaign work? Does America try some eleventh-hour, high-level secret talks with Iran first? Great questions; no answers. But the moment is approaching later this year, or early in 2013, when Israel and the United States will probably face a choice. Bomb, or accept the bomb.

The Rest Is Discretionary

But wait, you say, what about America's other interests, particularly the peace process and democratization?

Great questions. Let me give you some harsh answers. Watch the U.S. government's hands on these two; don't listen to its words. And what that disconnect tells me is that however much the United States says it cares, it really doesn't all that much.

On the issue of a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, wake me up when the current Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority get serious about doing something real. Every previous breakthrough was preceded by some act -- positive or negative -- that the locals initiated and that gave Washington the means and motivation to intervene successfully. Unless that ownership is present, the United States should stop worrying about this plan or that and stop pretending that it can somehow fix this.

On the issue of the Arab Spring -- or Islamist Winter, depending on your viewpoint -- it's going to be a very long movie. The United States should do what it can to help but stop inflating its rhetoric and realize that it's in no position to act decisively. The country is still involved in a devil's bargain with authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, military elites in Egypt, and a strongman in Iraq (not to mention a corrupt regime in nearby Afghanistan). Nor did it ever have the capacity or the will to remake these lands. The fact is, Arabs own more of their own politics now than ever before. And that's a good thing.

If America wants to pretend to the rest of the world that it's serious about Arab-Israeli peace or that it'll stand up to defend nascent Arab democracies, that's one thing. All governments dissemble and use idealized arguments to package their policies.

But there are certain things the United States cares about and others it doesn't -- certain issues it's prepared to do something about and others it chooses not to. At the very least, we should stop fooling ourselves about what those really are.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

The Winners and Losers of Syria's Civil War

And how the United States can still come out ahead.

Ask any intelligence analyst, policy planner, or public policy wonk -- it's really hard to see trees, the forest, or anything else for that matter when you're in the eye of the hurricane.

We're already deep into Last Chance 3.0 for Bashar al-Assad's regime, but the arc of its demise is still likely to take more twists and turns before the story ends. Most difficult to divine -- and upon which so much of the future hinges -- is who or what will emerge to rule in Damascus when the dust finally settles. Indeed, the bulk of the so-called silent majority of Syrians -- Sunnis and Alawites alike responsible for Assad's longevity -- have not been spoken for.

Still, here's a preliminary scorecard of who is likely to come out on top, ahead, behind, or underground.

Biggest Losers

1. Bashar and the Assads: Bashar's DNA doomed him. Forget the trope of the modern man who was going to reform Syria. There was no way that growing up in a family whose nurture/nature meld was a cross between the Sopranos and the Corleones could have turned out any other way. Whether he's shot crawling out of drainpipe like Qaddafi (unlikely), tried like Milosevic in the Hague (more unlikely), spends his life living in a dacha on the Moskva (getting warmer), or manages for a time to seek refuge in Alawistan, the end of the line is approaching. In this region, the only regimes that can be handed down generation after generation are the authoritarian kingly dynasties, never the brittle republics run by secular strongmen. Bashar is done; stick a fork in him. In the respect and legacy department, he's going to make Rodney Dangerfield look good.

2. Alawites: Think post-Saddam Iraq without the American intervention. Another empowered minority (12-13 percent of the population) is about to become an aggrieved minority. Reconciliation and inclusiveness would be great in the new Syria. Sadly, there will be a lot of pressure to look back not forward, to settle scores, and to get even. With enough outside help, Syria may be lucky enough to avoid the worst kind of sectarian score-settling. This would likely require an international stabilization force, a great deal of money, and an enlightened policy on the part of big brother Arabs, particularly the Saudis and the Turks. Still, the biggest losers will be Alawites who benefitted from the regime's largess and who are likely to end up poorer and less secure as the rising Sunnis divide the pie amongst themselves. Syria is in for an abrupt redistribution of economic and political power. And no one will feel this more forcefully than the Alawites, particularly if the Baath Party is disbanded or criminalized and Alawite military elites are prosecuted or stripped of command.

3. Christians: This won't be a happy outcome for Christians, either. Assad's departure could remove two important safeguards for Syria's Christian community (roughly 10 percent of the population). First, as long as they remained in power, Alawites had a stake in legitimizing their own minority status by protecting fellow minorities. Second, the stability -- false as it was -- that the Assads guaranteed made minority status fairly secure as long as such groups did not challenge the regime.

As the Syrian system collapses, the only certainty is that Sunnis will dominate the new order. And if the state secularism that the Assads promoted evaporates, the Christians, particularly those who have cooperated closely with the regime, could find themselves increasingly marginalized in a more traditionally Sunni land.

4. Hezbollah: Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Lebanon's Hezbollah, has been whistling past the graveyard lately in his support for Assad. Hezbollah will survive Assad's fall -- the organization is an authentic and dominant player in Lebanese politics, not some kind of remote-controlled proxy -- but one of its two strongest patrons is about to be replaced by a Sunni (and most likely hostile) regime. To be sure, Iran is the group's more important partner. But Syria -- even while there were tensions with Hezbollah over the years -- has been a faithful guarantor of weapons, intelligence, and muscle inside Lebanon. It has also provided some, though not much, deterrence against Israel. With Syria offline, it remains an open question whether Hezbollah could mount as forceful a response to external aggression -- from Iran, Israel, or the United States -- as it could have in the past.

5. Iran: The Iranians will survive this one too, but they will lose a strategic card. The Iranian-Syrian alliance has lasted for almost 40 years because it is mutually beneficial and because the two are not ideological competitors. The fall of Assad will upset this balance. If a Saudi Arabian-backed Sunni regime emerges in Damascus, Iran will fear being encircled and the "Shiite crescent" will be much less threatening. Iran's window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict will also close. All of these developments will only augment Iran's sense of insecurity and vulnerability. It may well lead to an even more determined effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

6. Iraq: The Shiite government of Nuri al-Maliki also has reason to fear Assad's ouster -- and it is likely that Iraqi-Syrian ties will be further strained. Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds will feel empowered by the rise of their brethren across the border in Syria and they will likely try to use that momentum to improve their own status at home. Syrian Kurds have already been coordinating with those in Iraq and taking refuge there as well. Should Kurds carve out their own autonomous entity within Syria, tensions will inevitably mount with both Iraq and Turkey.

7. Russia: Regardless of what happens in Syria, Russia will no longer enjoy the privileged position it once did. Syrians will not forget Moscow's support for the Assads, which included military and financial aid, and the emergence of a Sunni regime -- of whatever stripe -- will be at odds with Vladimir Putin's own aversion to Saudi-backed Islamists in Chechnya and the north Caucasus. If Assad does, in fact, try to create an Alawite statelet, and the Russians try to back it, matters will only get worse for Moscow. Among the great powers, there are no heroes in the Syrian saga -- that goes for the United States, too. But the Russians will occupy a place of pride in the rogues' gallery, together with Iran.

Big Winners: Are There Any?

Right now, it's much easier to identify the losers in the Syrian story than the winners. Events over the past 18 months seem to have shaped the fate of the unlucky with more certainty than that of the putative winners. I'd like to put the Syrian people at the top of the winner's list. After all, a brutal, thuggish, extractive regime is coming down and that shouldn't be a bad thing.

If the arc is long enough, Syria will be in for better days. Syrian civil society has shown a remarkable degree of resilience, willingness to cooperate, and ability to mobilize in the face of ongoing horrors. Still, should post-Assad Syria be dominated by an exclusivist Sunni regime influenced even to a small degree by fundamentalist leanings and without the will or capacity to accommodate the needs of a full third of Syria's people, the story could be much darker.

What we have right now is a group of wannabe winners, most with serious asterisks. Indeed, there's not yet a slam-dunk, jackpot winner among them.

1. Lebanon: The good news is that the end of the Assads could mean a lifting of the jackboot that has been on Lebanon's throat for a very long time now. Even with the formal withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus continued to meddle in Lebanese politics through its proxies, often with deadly effect. The fall of the Assads will also weaken Hezbollah.

The bad news is that an unstable Syria will continue to spill over into Lebanon, potentially stirring the pot of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Indeed, Syria's traditional fear that Lebanon will become a breeding ground for coup plotting and conspiring with the Israelis will only increase. Ultimately, much will turn on whether or not Lebanon can take advantage of its newfound maneuvering space and forge more unity within its own ranks.

2. The Kurds: Syria's ethnic minorities may fare better than its religious ones. Syria's Kurds (roughly 9 percent of the population) are Sunnis and will be looking for increased recognition and perhaps autonomy. If cooler heads prevail in Turkey and among the Syrian opposition -- both of whom so far oppose that goal -- some kind of compromise might be reached. If not, the Kurds who now dominate much of Syria's border with Turkey will be a source of tension and conflict within Syria and with Turkey, forging ties with Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party, commonly known as the PKK. It wouldn't take much imagination to envision Turkish incursions into Syria to hit Kurdish separatists and break up cooperation between Turkish and Syrian Kurds.

3. Israel: The good news for the Israelis is that Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened by Assad's fall. The bad news is that like so much of the Arab Spring/ Winter, the impending transition brings with it enormous uncertainty. What will happen to the 1974 disengagement agreement, which has made the Golan Heights the quietest space in the Middle East? What about Syria's chemical-weapons stockpiles, the largest in the region? What about foreign jihadists or the character of the new Syrian government? Will Syria revert back to the kind of instability that plagued the country before the Assads came to power? Will its government be influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood as in Egypt? If Iran feels encircled by hostile Sunnis, how acutely will the Israelis perceive the same challenge?

4. Turkey: Ankara is going to have to get used to the new Syria after enjoying a remarkably positive run with the Assads. Depending on the character of the Sunni government in Damascus, the Turks -- as the region's leading non-Arab Sunni power -- could become quite close to the new Syrian government, enhancing both their political and economic influence. Yet cooperation is far from a foregone conclusion. The Kurdish problem, as well as tensions between Turkish Sunnis and their own Alevis (the Turkish name for Alawites, who make up 15 percent of the population), could spark serious tensions and even violence.

5. Saudi Arabia: For the Saudis, the fall of the Assads carries real advantages if they can influence the new Sunni regime that emerges. The visit of Manaf Tlass -- the son of the former Sunni minister of defense -- to Saudi Arabia was an intriguing indication of what the Saudis may be thinking. Whether an establishment regime figure like Tlass would be acceptable to Free Syrian Army elements on the ground is another matter. But Syria will need friendly, rich Arabs. For Riyadh, Syria has been part of the great game of blocking Iranian influence. And if they don't overplay their Sunni cards -- and encourage the new government in Damascus to be inclusive with Alawites and Christians -- the Saudis might actually steal a march on Tehran.

6. The United States: Unlike the other authoritarian regimes it dealt with over the years, the United States never got much out of the Assads in matters of peacemaking or strategic advantage. A brutally repressive regime without much redemptive quality is on its way out -- and good riddance. For now, the biggest gain will be a weakening of Iran. But there could be a downside as well if Tehran becomes even more determined to push ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Assuming America doesn't intervene militarily, some ground will also have been lost among Syrians who believe it should have done something. But this can be recouped if Washington can help coordinate the international effort to address Syria's post-Assad needs.

The United States is an inherently status quo power, but it has values and interests that also compel it to support change. Its reaction to so much of the so-called Arab Spring reflects that ambivalence and will continue to do so in the future; it will also limit American influence in Syria. Should a Sunni regime emerge that is Islamist in character or just unstable, Washington will have an adequately tough time finding its balance. Just look at Egypt, where the U.S. has a strong relationship with the military and a thirty-year-old aid program, and still not much leverage. In Syria, it has almost no advantages. Nor does Washington have the resources to lead a multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort. Indeed, the only way Washington can possibly play a major role is if Syria follows Egypt and Jordan and signs a peace treaty with Israel. But the odds of this happening are slim to none.

The United States has much to lose if Syria devolves into sectarian conflict or worse, fragments. It has much to gain if it doesn't. But we need to be real here: Despite all the planning and working groups, Washington doesn't have much influence to shape the outcome either way. And let's face it: The struggle for Syria is going to be long and painful. If Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya -- despite all of their failings and dysfunction -- represent the best of what we can expect, Syria could easily come to represent the worst. And if that comes to pass, the Syrian story will end badly for everyone.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images