In the days preceding the Iraq war, both supporters and opponents of the war concurred that the United States would defeat the Iraqi armed forces, and that the most difficult problems were likely to arise in the days and months following victory. It is now clear that this prediction was right on target. The short-term glory of victory has been replaced by a more sober realization of America's long-term strategic commitments to the region.
This past week has provided the inevitable wake-up call. First, the new round of terrorism in Saudi Arabia and Morocco suggests very strongly that Al-Qaeda is back in business. The security situation in Afghanistan is far from stable, and there are disturbing reports that Pakistan once more is interfering in a heavy-handed way in Afghan politics.
Second, the much-vaunted "roadmap" for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and an eventual peace settlement has been derailed--thanks to the determination of Palestinian rejectionists to use terrorism to upset Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's hopes for progress in a new round of talks. The Bush Administration is putting a brave face on the situation, but it remains unclear how committed the President is to the roadmap. Will he put greater pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to explicitly curtail further settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or will he limit his intervention to condemnation of Palestinian failures to curb the violence? If the White House is to be taken seriously, both Israel and the Palestinians must be persuaded to take painful actions in the hope of rebuilding trust.
Looming on the intermediate horizon is the question of Iran's nuclear capabilities and more specifically activity at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. In June, the governors' meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have to decide whether or not Iran is in material breach of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-and if so, what to do about it.
All of these developments suggest that the United States has a full agenda in the Middle East, and that there will be no early military exit either from Afghanistan or Iraq. It also means that we must be prepared for future acts of Al-Qaeda and Palestinian terrorism. The most dangerous scenario, apart from another attack in the continental United States, would be successful terrorist operations against U.S. forces in Iraq. This would require us to take a tougher line and deploy additional military forces. This, in turn, would undermine hopes for a democratic Iraqi regime and the drawing down of U.S. occupation forces.
The United States cannot be an "offshore" presence in the Middle East if it wishes to protect our vital interests. It will require patience and a long term presence in several Islamic countries. If handled poorly, the Middle East could prove to be a political nightmare for yet another American president.
Geoffrey Kemp is the director for Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center.