The Middle East almost always has been near the top of the American foreign policy agenda. Balancing commitment to Israel’s welfare with the high value placed on support for oil-rich Arab states has been one challenge. Reconciling rhetorical dedication to democracy promotion and human rights with a pragmatic recognition of friendly despotisms has been another. Hostile relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran added one more stressful element. Then the rise of radical jihadist movements and the phenomenon of transnational terrorism came to the fore. That turbulent mix has been stirred into a maelstrom by dramatic events – some initiated by the United States itself. Occupation of Afghanistan in response to 9/11, invasion and occupation of Iraq, the region-wide Global War on Terror, the Arab Spring, and capped by the unprecedented menace of ISIL.
Consequently, Washington officials face a uniquely complex policy field that places extraordinary demands of a strategic and diplomatic nature.
Surveying the present state of affairs, the observer is struck by the elements of contradiction in objective conditions and in the American policies intended to address them. Indeed, contradiction is the outstanding feature of the United States’ engagements in the Middle East. The swift Russian intervention into Syria exacerbates every one of the contradictory elements in Washington’s various, unintegrated Middle East policies. That is one reason for the unexpected moves by Putin are deeply unsettling. They not only add a major variable, but that factor also involves a self-willed player ready and able to take initiatives which are not predictable or easy to counter. An already fluid field of action, thereby, is rendered even more turbulent by orders of magnitude.