Let’s think big for a few minutes. What are the main challenges facing American foreign policy in the Middle East? Here’s a quick list: Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and ensuring continued access to oil reserves. One might want to add Islamist terrorism to the list, but it’s largely a side-effect of these items.
What do they all have in common? Well, they’re all losing battles, to one degree or another. Iraq is the site of a failed occupation—a losing battle of Washington’s own creation.
Iran is emboldened, trenchantly anti-American (at least at the power-political level), and potentially nuclear armed. There is very little that American can easily do about this—military options are limited to air strikes that would probably accomplish little more than enraging the government and populace.
Things aren’t much better in Israel-Palestine. The line between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is as disputed as ever, and joint American-Israeli policy seems finally to be on the brink of destroying Palestinian political organisation in the Occupied Territories. Insofar as American interest in the conflict consists in preserving Israel, a long term solution is a far away as ever.
Lastly, comes the big one. Washington needs, perhaps above all else, to keep Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf states pumping oil. Even if they don’t always buy it themselves (they get a surprising amount elsewhere), someone always will, and the cumulative contribution to the global market helps keep the price of oil out of the stratosphere. And this is the part no one can dispute: sooner or later, the oil is running out. This is the most important part for a fairly straightforward reason: It’s the one problem the Americans can least easily opt out of.
What then of terrorism? If all these problems went away, so largely would the risk of militant Islamism to the US. While it certainly wouldn’t go away, there would be a reduced appeal to attacking America as a putatively imperial power, and this might help redirect Islamists’ rage toward targets closer to home, such as their own governments. Not a nice prospect exactly, but it might get Washington off the hook.
So what to do? Well, on at least some of these points, it looks likely that American influence will begin to wane in the region—Iran won’t be easily bullied out of its regional power ambitions, Iraq will get worse, and Israeli safety at home probably won’t be permanent for some time, barring a significant shift in Israeli policy itself (so the only solution is relatively independent of American behaviour in the region).
This is probably a good thing. The ability of the US to deal with the big one—energy security—will be largely dependent on its ability to make nice on the other big issues. The question, then, is whether or not Washington will be willing to go quietly. If it allows the region to stand, or fall, on its own two feet, it might have a relatively easy few decades of foreign policy ahead of it. If it kicks up a fight—by bombing Iran, for example—then things could get very nasty yet.