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That fine strategist Groucho Marx said that in politics, authenticity is everything; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. The problem with U.S. power and influence in the Middle East is that countries are rightly reading our lack of seriousness, the lack of authenticity in our claims that using chemical weapons is a red line, that we will not permit an Iranian nuclear weapons program, that Bashir al-Assad must go, that we affected a responsible withdrawal from Iraq leaving behind a stable and democratic country, and that we will stand by our friends and protect our allies.
What is needed to restore confidence is U.S. power and influence is to state clearly what we expect and also what we will not tolerate from countries and organizations and individuals in the region, and then enforce those standards. Does anyone know what our policy toward arms sales to Egypt is? The sales were suspended with the Sissi coup, and then reinstated when we needed Egyptian support to attack the Islamic State. Does anyone believe President Obama, who blanched at enforcing his red line in Syria, would actually begin a war to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure? Countries in the region are cynical about American policies, and with good reason.
Restoring American credibility will be the work of many years. We will be tested, and must pass the tests. We must say what we mean, and enforce what we say. That will probably require a different American president, one more serious about the use of military force and more consistently attentive to the problems of the people in the region. We need actual strategies—not just limited military operations—if we are to understand and affect the course of events.
Helping our actual friends would be a great place to start. Jordan has borne the burden of Palestinian and now Syrian refugees despite the enormous changes it has affected in the country, continues to practice inclusive politics and has interesting ideas about how to defang the threat of political Islam. Making a success of Jordan would also be a counterweight to the Hamas and Hezbollah arguments for “resistance.”