Still another American choice would be not to nation-build, bomb, or even to get near a Middle Eastern country — as we seem to be doing with Iran and Syria. The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the shah left in 1979. Until the Obama administration desperately tried to reestablish contacts with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria by appointing a new ambassador, there had been nearly six years of estrangement.
Yet Iran is nearing its goal of obtaining a nuclear weapon both to threaten Israel and to bully other oil-exporting regimes of the Persian Gulf. The Syrian government is now butchering thousands of its own citizens with impunity.
A final option would be to return to the old policy of reestablishing friendly relationships with Middle East dictatorships regardless of their internal politics — and then keeping mum about their excesses. We did that with Pakistan, which has both received billions in U.S. aid and produced a nuclear bomb. Yet it is hard to imagine a more anti-American country than nuclear Pakistan, without which the Taliban could not kill Americans so easily in Afghanistan.
The United States once saved the Kuwaiti regime after it was swallowed up by Saddam Hussein. We have enjoyed strong ties with the Saudi monarchy as well. Neither country seems especially friendly to the U.S. It is still a crime to publicly practice Christianity in Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 mass-murdering hijackers of 9/11 were Saudis. Oil in the Middle East costs less than $5 a barrel to produce; it now sells for over $100, largely because of the policies of our allies and OPEC members.
Let us review the various American policy options for the Middle East over the last few decades. Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.
What have we learned? Tribalism, oil, and Islamic fundamentalism are a bad mix that leaves Americans sick and tired of the Middle East — both when they get in it and when they try to stay out of it.