As the U.S. juggles multiple crises in the Middle East, it’s a good time to look at the map.
Find Libya. Head east across North Africa through the Middle East and all the way to Pakistan in South Asia. The journey covers eight troubled lands, side by side. In seven, Sunni Islamists are pressing for power in various stages of revolt. The eighth is Iran, where Shiite clerics have long ruled.
The U.S. has opposed Muslim fundamentalists in every one of these cases, but American involvement has not produced any resolutions.
The U.S. approaches have run the gamut. There were major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were limited airstrikes in Libya. America opted for diplomacy and financial assistance with allies like Egypt and Pakistan, and sanctions against rivals, like Iran. Yet there’s not a single success story.
Many have blamed U.S. policies, and one line of criticism is that George W. Bush overreached by waging two major wars simultaneously, while President Obama has been too hesitant to act as the region implodes.
“The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider,” writes Roger Cohen in The New York Times. “But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.”
Yet with so much trouble scattered over such a vast landscape, an alternative critique holds that the U.S. can’t possibly keep the lid on a region going through a maelstrom of historic proportions that’s beyond the control of any outside power.
“The Arab world is caught up in a broader struggle,” writes Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Until Arabs figure out who they are and what kind of countries they want to live in, there is little Washington can do to help.”
This past week has included U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, the beheading of an American journalist in Syria and renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.
Here’s a glance at what the U.S. is attempting to do throughout the convulsed region and what some of the experts are saying:
IRAQ: When the final U.S. troop convoy rolled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, the U.S. military had been operating in Iraq or over its skies on a daily basis for more than two decades, spanning four U.S. presidencies.
The U.S. has little to show for this massive investment, which raises questions about the likelihood of success this time as it targets the militants of the Islamic State. The airstrikes have halted the advance of the militants, at least for now. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. has helped nudge Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of power.
But the president has not laid out his broader strategy against the militants who also hold a large chunk of Syria.
“As the United States has witnessed over the past decade, the obsession to counter terrorism can drag a country into unwinnable wars and immoral acts,” writes David Ignatius in The Washington Post.
Still, he approves of Obama’s approach so far in Iraq: “He has moved strategically, step by step, gathering the tools that will be needed to confront this malignancy.”
SYRIA: Last August, the U.S. blamed President Bashar Assad’s forces for a chemical weapons attack and Obama announced plans to launch airstrikes, though he ultimately decided against it. The current debate is whether to bomb the Islamic State — the group fighting against Assad.
Meanwhile, Obama has requested $500 million to arm the so-called moderate rebels. Some say that’s too little, too late. Others argue that Syria’s multi-sided war is a hopeless morass the U.S. should avoid despite the terrible human toll.
There’s one consensus on Syria: No options are appealing.
“Does U.S. foreign policy even have a prayer in addressing these age-old fault lines — never mind solving them by supplying one side or the other with weapons?” write Stephan Richter and Richard Phillips in The Globalist.
AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN: America’s longest war will formally end by year’s end as the U.S. withdraws its combat troops from Afghanistan. But 13 years after the U.S. invaded, it’s still an open question whether the Afghan government and security forces can hold back the Taliban.
Obama wants a residual force of nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for up to two years to train the Afghan army and conduct counterterrorism operations. The great fear is that Afghanistan could unspool as Iraq did after U.S. troops pulled out.
Next door, U.S.-Pakistan relations remain deeply strained over their different approaches to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban take refuge in Pakistan, to the great frustration of the U.S. The U.S. has carried out drone strikes in Pakistan, alienating Pakistanis.
Pakistan also has the distinction of being a leading recipient of U.S. assistance and one of the most anti-American countries, according to opinion polls.
ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS: Willing or not, every U.S. president since Harry Truman has found himself embroiled in this conflict, and none has been able to solve it. Obama is not faring any better than his predecessors.
Secretary of State John Kerry waged an aggressive campaign to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace deal. But those ambitions have been shelved as he struggles to end the latest round of bloodletting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the third such confrontation in the past six years.
The U.S. provides Israel with more than $3 billion in security assistance and gives hundreds of millions annually to the Palestinians for social programs. Yet Palestinians are angry with the U.S. over its military support for Israel. And U.S.-Israel ties were strained as the Obama administration criticized Israel for the high civilian death toll in Gaza.
EGYPT: Obama delivered a major address in Cairo in 2009 calling for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims” and greater freedoms in a politically stagnant region. The speech presaged the Arab Spring, and Egypt has been in almost permanent crisis mode since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Yet the U.S., a close ally and major aid donor, has largely been a bystander.
Former Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s sweeping crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood removed an elected government, has put thousands in prison and largely stamped out public protests, at least for now. Once again, the U.S. finds itself dealing with an authoritarian, undemocratic government, a far cry from what Obama envisioned in his Cairo speech five years ago.
LIBYA: This looked like a rare success story back in 2011, when U.S. and NATO airstrikes helped rebels oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But Libya quickly descended into anarchy and an attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Libya has no functioning central government as a patchwork of militias slug it out in several cities, including the capital Tripoli, where the airport has been a major battleground. The U.S. has closed the embassy in Tripoli, symbolizing its withdrawal from the Libyan conflict for now.
IRAN: The U.S. and other world powers negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program have pushed back the deadline for reaching a deal until November. Despite glimmers of progress, the outcome is in doubt.
President Hassan Rouhani has not delivered promised reforms at home, and the U.S. and Iran are on opposite sides of several Middle East disputes. Iran supports the Assad government in Syria, backs Hamas against Israel and is the main ally of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Gregory Gause of the Brookings Insitituion says the Middle East is experiencing a cold war between Iran, the center of Shiite Islam, and Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the standard bearer of Sunni Islam. The U.S., he says, cannot unilaterally settle this long-running rivalry or fix the dysfunction of the wider region.
“The United States can do little to address the weakness of governing institutions in many Arab states,” writes Gause. He adds:
“It therefore needs to take a modest approach and recall that this is not America’s war. The conflicts have not seriously impaired America’s core regional interests. The guiding principle of the American response should be to prefer order over chaos, and thereby support the states that provide effective governance, even when that governance does not achieve preferred levels of democracy and human rights.”
Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1.