Andrew Bacevich writes:
The upheaval engulfing the Arab world presents the United States with two choices. Washington can either embrace change, stand on the sidelines, and accept whatever results. Or it can intervene, insert itself in the process, and try to shape the outcome. Advocating the latter would be to assume reserves of power, not to mention wisdom, at Washington’s disposal. At the moment, however, the U.S. possesses neither.
But history, too, argues for restraint. Consider what several decades of outside meddling in the Islamic world has accomplished. Out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I came a new map of the vast region, designed not to promote the well-being of its inhabitants, but to satisfy European (chiefly British) interests. The Allies drew boundaries, created nation-states, and installed monarchs to ensure Western access to oil and control of the Suez Canal.
British success proved fleeting, however. The many tasks proved expensive, and in the wake of World War II, cash-strapped Britain devolved its responsibilities onto the U.S., which had grown hungry for global leadership. Although American aims differed little from Great Britain’s, the Cold War enabled Washington to camouflage its purposes. It portrayed Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh as a communist dupe to justify his overthrow, depicted Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as a puppet of the Kremlin rather than as an Arab nationalist, and endorsed Israel’s image of itself as a lonely bastion of democracy in a sea of Soviet-armed authoritarians.
By the end of the 20th century, Washington’s ambitions had ballooned rapidly. Yet the unintended consequences of America’s informal empire, which began as a trickle, rushed on as an unwelcome flood. Chief among them: the emergence in Iran of an Islamic Republic deeply hostile to the United States; Israeli insecurities finding expression in a penchant for an excessive reliance on force, recklessly and aggressively employed; the rise of widespread anti-Americanism throughout much of the Islamic world; and the incubation of radical Islamist organizations committed to expelling the U.S., purging the region of its corrupt local rulers, and unifying the umma.