WASHINGTON — In its search for moral clarity, the Bush administration has divided the Middle East into good guys and bad guys, with the United States, Israel and conservative Muslim regimes on one side, and Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah on the other. This view plays well with the American public, but poorly in Muslim nations and much of the rest of the world. In fact, one of its most important effects has been to unite feuding Sunni and Shiite Muslims in opposition to America.
Speaking to a joint session of Congress a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was understandable for President George W. Bush to say to the nations of the world: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Most of the world was, in fact, with America.
Once the Taliban had been ousted, Afghanistan liberated and Al Qaeda's leaders scattered, however, such a simplified world view ceased to serve any useful purpose, except the not inconsiderable one of mobilizing American public support for the administration's continuing efforts in the region.
The Middle East cannot usefully be divided into radicals, democrats and conservatives. For most of its inhabitants — whether Muslim, Jew or Christian — religion tends to be more important than ideology, and nationalism tends to be more important than religion.
Consequently, the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim regimes is seen by most of the population of the Middle East as more significant than the division between radical and conservative. As the United States has discovered in Iraq, the divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims is wider — for most adherents of each sect — than the division between democrat and authoritarian. And finally, the gulf between occupier and occupied is the most important distinction of all.
As long as America treats the Middle East's dynamics as a win-or-lose, zero- sum game in which gains by Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas are American losses, and vice versa, Washington will continue to lose. That's because America and Israel are so deeply unpopular in the region that the support of either is now a liability for the other.
Controversial as Israel's attacks into Lebanon have become, they are probably even more unpopular because they are supported by Washington. Similarly, Washington's efforts to isolate the rogue states and terrorist movements of the region encounter popular resistance to the extent that they appear to serve Israeli interests.
Peace in the Middle East requires an effort to mediate conflicting claims, balance competing forces and tamp down sectarian passions. This has been the traditional American role, but one the current administration has largely abandoned.
In Lebanon, the United States has ceded its traditional role to others, most notably France. The result seems likely to be a cessation of hostilities on terms upon which large-scale fighting might have been averted in the first place, had the United States chosen to exert itself in that direction: a cease-fire, disengagement and the exchange of prisoners between Lebanon and Israel.
In Iraq there is no one to whom Washington can pass the responsibility for mediating an end to that incipient civil war. Like any failing state, Iraq can be held together only if its neighbors collaborate in the effort.
It is only necessary, in this regard, to recall experiences of Bosnia and Afghanistan. In the early 1990s, Bosnia was pulled apart by the competing ambitions of Serbia and Croatia. During that same decade, Afghanistan was held in perpetual civil war by Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia as part of their great game for regional influence.
In 1995, U.S. diplomacy succeeded in ending the Bosnian civil war by bringing the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, the two men personally responsible for the genocide Washington was trying to stop, to the peace table. In 2001, American diplomacy achieved a similar feat, securing Pakistani, Iranian, Indian and Russian support for the ouster of the Taliban and its replacement by the Hamid Karzai regime.
In both Bosnia and Afghanistan, American aims may have been morally unambiguous, but Washington's choice of interlocutors was distinctly pragmatic. The more unhelpful the regime, the more morally repugnant its leadership, the more important it was to bring them to the negotiating table.
An American diplomacy that recognizes the Middle East's complexities may be more difficult to sell to the American people, but it would be more likely to succeed. And ultimately, Americans are more likely to support policies that succeed than those that fail.
James Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for the Balkans, and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan. He is currently director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on August 13, 2006.