T.E. Lawrence – Britain’s legendary “Lawrence of Arabia” – warned outsiders that, for them, Arabia is not a hospitable place. “However friendly and informal the treatment of yourself may be, remember always that your foundations are very sandy ones.”
Expanding “Arabia” to the wider Islamic world, Americans have, indeed, found the ground to be quite sandy, from Baghdad to Benghazi. But, like quicksand, it is impossible to escape.
Back in the days of Lawrence, the Middle East was a headache primarily for the British and French, and most Americans would probably be happy to return to a more detached relationship with all the travails of the region. It’s not going to happen, though, because of four persistent factors.
First is Israel. The Israeli settlements policy is infuriating and Israel's military tactics can produce horrendous suffering, but the nation's values remain close to ours and its ties to varied American communities remain rock solid. The U.S. will remain Israel’s strongest ally until peace finally comes to the Holy Land, and that day looks as distant as ever.
Second is oil. We will be sending both our money and our troops to the region as long as “our oil” lies buried under the Arabian sands. Happily, this is one entanglement that might loosen and break in the foreseeable future as we develop domestic sources of oil and shift our economy to alternative energy.
Third is terrorism. For decades the U.S. financed Arab dictators and, more recently, has sent in armies, airplanes, ships and squadrons of drones to rearrange the politics of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and other Islamic countries. This -- and our defense of Israel -- has made us enemy No. 1 for radicals in the region. We could pull out every soldier, diplomat and CIA agent and promise never to come back, but the militants would not forget the past or give up the propaganda advantage of proclaiming “Death to America!” We are a target and will remain so. We are compelled to defend ourselves, not just at home, but over there.
And the fourth factor that will cause Americans to remain mired in the Middle East is that it is our destiny – manifest or not. We have become a superpower by circumstance and by choice, and that position fits with our historical image of ourselves as the greatest country on the planet. We cannot be the greatest and, at the same time, ignore the deadly pathologies of the Arab world. Our idealism won’t allow it, our hubris won’t allow it, and our self-interest won’t allow it.
In a perfect world, we would stay home and tend to our parochial concerns, but this is far from a perfect world. We can’t wriggle free of the sucking sands of Arabia.