Should the US Get More Involved in the Middle East?

Earlier this month, the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph published an article voicing how Americans feel about the Middle East: "worried, but more than anything, frustrated and confused."

Sounds about right. Americans find themselves torn between action and inaction, not knowing what to think. Following the gruesome takeover of Islamist terrorist group ISIS -- complete with crucifixions and beheadings -- the natural temptation is to strike back. To do something.

But there's the elephant in the room: Iraq. A whopping 71 percent of Americans say the Iraq War "wasn't worth it." Not too long ago, President Barack Obama blatantly called the Iraq War "dumb."

So Americans are stuck at a crossroads. How do we fight ISIS without repeating the same mistakes? How can we tell a dumb war from a smart war?

Intelligence Squared, an NPR-affiliated program, gathered four of the top experts in the country to debate the topic. Two thought America flexing its muscles in the Middle East would make things better. The other two thought it would make things worse.

Here are their arguments.

Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and Senior Fellow at Georgetown's Center for Security Studies, is an American intervention skeptic. He concludes that "The U.S. military's a great hammer, but some of the thorniest problems we've got in the Middle East simply are not nails."

Sound familiar? That's precisely what President Obama said in his West Point speech a few months ago, hammer and nail analogy included.

It's a good metaphor. It particularly stands when American military power isn't just used to respond to threats, but to puppeteer politics. As Pillar puts it, we cannot "inject democracy through the barrel of a gun."

Surprisingly, Michael Doran, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, likens this approach to the "Sarah Palin Doctrine." Her solution was this: "Let Allah sort it out." Or, as Doran paraphrases, "Let the Sunnis and Shiites kill each other."

Besides sounding crude, there's another reason to be put off by this kind of thinking. The Middle East is spiraling. Since 2010, the number of jihadist fighters has more than doubled -- a fact pointed out by Doran's panelist-in-crime Bret Stephens. Stephens is a deputy editor and foreign affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

Both Stephens and Doran make the case that we don't really have a choice. Passivity just leads to greater entanglement later. The less we do now, they argue, the more damage control we will have to do down the road.

Strange as it sounds, that logic may be wishful thinking. It may be overestimating the United States' role. At least that's the opinion of the final debater, Aaron David Miller, a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center and former Middle East negotiator.

"It was Larry Summers who said, 'In the history of the world, nobody has ever washed a rental car.' You know why you don't wash rental cars? Because you only care about what you own. And the problem in this region is a lack of ownership."

Miller makes an excellent point. There is no accountability in the Middle East. Groups like ISIS can rampage without consequence, and dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad can attack their own people. How can we mend a region that is falling apart at the seams?

The two arguing against flexing American muscle affirm that we need to step back. The War on Terror has not only been a lesson in strategy -- what we can do better -- but a lesson in what we cannot do. We cannot fix the Middle East.

Likewise, just as our positive influence has limitations, our negative influence has been overestimated, too. Assad's ruthless regime sparked a terrorist blowback -- something the United States had nothing to do with. The civil war would have happened regardless.

Doran thinks this is a shallow way of looking at things. Even if cases like this may be true, we cannot disengage from the Middle East. It's too late.

"We are judged by our action and we are judged by our inaction. And we are participants by the nature of our size and our historic role in the Middle East in the sectarian conflict, in all conflicts in the region, whether we think we are or not, whether we stay out or whether we don't."

So where to go from here? Doran says the answer lies with our allies. We need to bolster our reputation with our allies -- fast. "We have two problems in the Middle East: Malevolent actors that want to do us harm -- like al-Qaeda and the Iranians -- and our friends." Put another way, we have lots of "frenemies."

The goal is to keep our allies from going rogue. If the United States looks weak -- if it looks like our military commitments are fickle -- Doran says our allies will be deterred from acting alongside us. Our credibility is shot.

Still, that's a gamble. We don't know what our allies will do anymore than we know what we ourselves will do. But there was one point all of the panelists seemed to agree on: There are no real solutions.

Miller cautions against imagining any "Hollywood ending." Doran relates the problems of the region to diabetes, something that can be managed but never cured. Stephens is unapologetically frank: "Your dreams will never come true when it comes to the Middle East."