In the immediate future, I do not think the United States will be intervening abroad on the ground — not in the Middle East or, for that matter, many places in other parts of the world. The reason is not just a new Republican isolationism, or the strange but growing alliance between left-wing pacifists and right-wing libertarians.
Some of the new reluctance to intervene abroad is due to disillusionment with Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the sense that the means — a terrible cost of American blood and treasure — do not seem yet to be justified by the ends of the current Maliki and Karzai governments. Few Americans are patient enough to hear arguments that a residual force in Iraq would have preserved our victory there, or that Afghanistan need not revert to the Taliban next year. Their attitude to the Obama administration’s unfortunate abdication of both theaters is mostly, “I am unhappy that we look weak getting out, but nonetheless happier that we are getting out.”
There is not much optimism left that either of those two nations will, over the coming decades, evolve along the lines of South Korea, from a stable free-market authoritarianism to true consensual government. Endemic ingratitude also seems to matter to the public. Most Americans don’t feel that either Iraqis or Afghans appreciated us very much for ridding them of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. For that matter, do Egyptians, Jordanians, or Palestinians seem thankful for U.S. aid?
We are broke and owe $17 trillion in long-term debt, which makes it harder, psychologically, to borrow the money to intervene in Syria. The lack of money, like mental exhaustion and ingratitude, is an additional catalyst for inaction. Obama certainly is not just an isolationist who welcomes a U.S. recessional; he is also an isolationist who understands that his do-nothing policy is not all that unpopular with a broke and underemployed public.
The American people do not worry so much now over the traditional Western interests in the Middle East as they did in the past. China is now the largest importer of Middle Eastern oil. It pays almost nothing for the safe commercial environment of the Persian Gulf ensured by the U.S. military. If North America proves to be energy-independent by 2020, the U.S. will be largely immune from embargoes and boycotts. OPEC in general, and its Arab franchises in particular, are no longer so critical to the security of the United States. It is becoming an untenable situation when a democratic United States continues to keep safe the sea-lanes of the autocratic and sometimes anti-American Persian Gulf to ensure oil for an autocratic and sometimes anti-American China. That does not mean that the oil-rich Persian Gulf will not be vitally important to the world at large, or of strategic interest to our rivals and enemies — only that it will be more difficult to invest U.S resources in the Middle East with the traditional urgency.
Mediterranean Europe is a mess, largely because of the fiscal imbalances brought on by the euro. Amid financial collapse, Greece and Cyprus increasingly look to Israel and Russia to counter Turkey in lieu of the old, engaged United States. In any case, Athens, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, and Tripoli don’t seem to be centers of innovation or wealth creation. For that matter, almost the entire rim of the Mediterranean, with the exception of Israel, is stagnating.
Other than Israel, and NATO members Greece and Turkey, we have almost no allies in the region. Note in that regard that Greece is bankrupt and still conspiracist and anti-American, and Turkey is increasingly Islamist.
But more important, the removal of tyrants so far has not led to much social, economic, or political improvement, much less an upswing in pro-American sentiment. Egypt and Libya are as bad off after the demise of their tyrants as they were before. Assad’s opponents don’t seem all that much better than the monster in Damascus. Maliki, once freed of U.S. overseers, increasingly reverts to tribal politics. Afghanistan may go the way of Vietnam once we leave. Successful nation-building requires a sizable and long-term U.S. ground presence, something apparently politically toxic for the foreseeable future.
The threat of a rival global hegemon in the Middle East like the Soviet Union is gone. China seems unable so far to craft regional power over its oil suppliers. Al-Qaeda is ascendant, but it is hard to know whether it thrives better under dictators who stealthily pay it subsidies to direct its violence westward, or under the tribal postwar chaos that follows the Western-inspired downfall of tyrants.