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To reestablish a favorable balance of power across the Greater Middle East—the region stretching from the northwest coast of Africa through the Arab lands of the Levant and Persian Gulf into South Asia—the United States must first be clear about its geopolitical goals. The most immediate should be to defeat Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, but the larger purpose must be to find a way to rebuild stable and create more decent polities in Sunni lands. This second, arguably, is a heavier lift than even America can manage—it is a mission civilatrice of the most formidable kind—but without decent governance, true stability will remain elusive. Under such circumstances, it is only possible to identify the general characteristics of a strategy. Here are the top five:
1. Be patient. In declaring war on the Islamic State, President Obama made an important admission, one that’s been hard for America to face up to: this is the Long War. Obama has thrown away in six years what it took his predecessors 30 to achieve. To get back to where we were in 2009—after President George W. Bush stopped doing “stupid stuff”—will take time.
2. Get strong. This is a war; soft power won’t cut it. It’s a big war; drone strikes and SEAL Team 6 alone won’t cut it. Osama bin Laden was right: the Middle East is a place where you must be seen as the “strong horse.” We aren’t seen as the strong horse any more, and in fact we are not. Without the military means to compel our (many) enemies to do our will—even though none of them is himself a strong horse—all we can do is whack moles.
3. Get smart. We have to see the war for what it is, in its totality. It’s not just the Islamic State, “core” al-Qaeda, AQ’s many “affiliates,” Iran, or Pakistan, but a region that’s inherently chaotic and inherently important; the Middle East is central to the global balance of power. No more “pivots,” ever!
4. Go Sunni. Sunnis are the vast majority of Muslims. Holding together a moderate-Sunni coalition—no matter how bad the Saudis are, no matter how two-faced—is the only way to begin to win, at least from where we are now; if the Israelis can understand this, so should we. This also means we must not again make the mistake—the mistake to which American elites are most prone—of imagining a “condominium” with Iran.
5. Get real. America can do this, and Americans will do what it takes, if told the truth. No one wants to “get sucked into” a Middle East war, but every president does. The key to long-term success is to accumulate lesser wins. The most important consequence of the Iraq “surge” was its effect on American public opinion; not even President Barack Obama and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi had the votes or the stomach to stop it. If we don’t pretend that this is easy, or quick, or, worst of all, that it doesn’t matter, we can win.