In Sandstorm, Leon Hadar, a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, launches a frontal assault on the several orthodoxies constituting the citadel of U.S. policy in the Middle East. If in the end his effort to demolish that fortress does not quite succeed, he breaches the ramparts in several places. Sandstorm does not fully persuade, but it is a brave, thoughtful, and vigorously argued book on a subject of critical importance.

Hadar’s chief purpose is to discredit what he calls the Middle East Paradigm, to which virtually the entire American foreign-policy establishment subscribes as if to holy writ. Evolving in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the MEP consists of three propositions asserted by supposed “experts” with such frequency and conviction as to take on the appearance of revealed truth. According to Hadar, none of the three can withstand close scrutiny.

The first proposition is strategic, an insistence that the U.S. is called upon to play a pre-eminent role in the Middle East. In a Cold War context, pre-eminence implied using American power to keep the Soviets from muscling into the region. But even during the Cold War, considerations unrelated to the Soviet threat influenced U.S. policy. Specifically, from 1945 onward, Washington was intent on displacing the Europeans whose imperial machinations had created the modern Middle East in the first place.

Indeed, from the outset, nudging the Europeans out was at least as important as preventing the Soviets from horning in. Seen in this context, the pivot around which U.S. grand strategy turned was not the showdown of October 1973 that saw Richard Nixon risking war against the Soviets on behalf of a beleaguered Israel. For Hadar, the key event occurred much earlier, during the Suez crisis of 1956 when Dwight D. Eisenhower humiliated France and Great Britain for presuming that they, in concert with Israel, could act independently in pursuit of their own interests.

Hadar concedes the necessity of U.S. exertions aimed at frustrating Soviet designs on the Middle East. He regrets the fact that the demise of the Soviet threat only fueled U.S. ambitions in the region. Once the Cold War ended, American policymakers were no longer satisfied with mere “leadership.” The aim now became unambiguous hegemony. However much George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush may differ in terms of technique, all three share a commitment to the idea that in the Middle East Washington needs to call the shots—a notion fostering a penchant for meddling and adventurism that has cost the United States dearly while providing little of substance in return.

The second proposition defining the MEP is economic—the belief that Western access to Middle Eastern oil is critical to American prosperity and that only a powerful U.S. presence in the region can assure that access. Few readers will find persuasive Hadar’s contention that the United States, drawing the bulk of its energy requirements from sources in the Western Hemisphere, has no particular need for Persian Gulf oil. He is on far stronger grounds, however, in arguing that the self-interest of oil-exporting nations guarantees the flow of oil far more effectively than does the presence of U.S. military garrisons.

Furthermore, even in crass terms, he finds that the effort to convert the Persian Gulf into a U.S. military protectorate has proven to be a bad bargain. Cheap oil purchased at the cost of many tens of billions of taxpayer dollars—not to mention the lost lives of American soldiers—turns out to be not really very cheap after all. Hadar rightly argues that the region’s sheiks, emirs, and presidents-for-life—not to mention free-riding Europeans and Japanese—have been snookering us.

So too, in a sense, have successive Israeli governments. Israel is central to the final component defining the MEP. This third proposition, according to Hadar, is a moral one, reflecting America’s commitment to ensuring the survival and security of the Jewish state.

Hadar does not question that commitment. He does question some the consequences to which the commitment has given rise. One has been to provide Israel with enormous political leverage in Washington, permitting, for example, Israeli governments to defy successive U.S. administrations on the issue of settlements and to do so with impunity. A second consequence has been to foster the belief that it is incumbent upon the United States to “do something” to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. From Kissinger to Clinton (and now Condoleezza Rice), this has encouraged all manner of political grandstanding but has produced few results other than sticking the United States with the bill for the never-ending “peace process.” From Hadar’s perspective, all of this frenetic American activism—from Madrid to Oslo, from Mitchell to Tenet—has only ended up reducing the incentives for Israeli and Arab leaders to engage in serious dialogue.

For at least three reasons, according to Hadar, devising an alternative to the MEP is becoming an increasingly urgent priority. First, as 9/11 and its aftermath have made plain, the American imperial project in the Middle East has already exacted costs far in excess of those predicted by its supporters. The further pursuit of hegemony in the region is an invitation to bankruptcy. Second, although the Bush administration has added “a Wilsonian soundtrack to the old realpolitik-oriented script,” foisting democracy on the region will likely drive up those costs still further. Rather than voting into office candidates sympathetic to Jeffersonian values, Islamists are much more likely to choose as leaders radicals committed to jihad. Third, the imperial project is putting us on a collision course with Europe, which is hankering, in Hadar’s view, to avenge itself for Suez and innumerable other slights. “Americans and Europeans,” he writes, “are being driven into a geo-strategic and geo-economic confrontation over the Middle East.” In the near future, a “Berlin-Paris-London triumvirate” might emerge to challenge Washington.

However logical, even necessary according to the dictates of realist theory, this prospect appears highly unlikely. Although the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed European Constitution occurred after Hadar finished his book, that setback only affirms what was already self-evident: the EU is politically (and therefore militarily) feeble and is likely to remain so for the indefinite future. Europe can check the United States by obliging us to foot the bill for our own misadventures—as it is doing with regard to Iraq. But it is unlikely to muster the clout to balance the United States in a classic sense. The fecklessness of our own foreign-policy elite poses a greater danger to American well-being than does the prospect of a resurgent Europe.

Despite its manifest defects, the MEP persists in large part because, according to the conventional wisdom, no viable alternative exists. Nonsense, says Hadar, offering a policy of “constructive disengagement” as one such alternative. In a nutshell, he advocates allowing regional powers to negotiate their own equilibrium, with Europe serving as the ultimate guarantor of stability. He also wants to take a hands-off approach to the Palestinian issue, expecting that Israelis and Palestinians alike might become more serious about hammering out a settlement. Somewhat improbably, Hadar—who at one point wisely describes the Middle East as “a graveyard of great expectations”—foresees this approach paving the way for NAFTA-like trade agreements inducing “a movement toward democracy in the entire Levant” and an Israeli-Palestinian confederation akin to “a Middle Eastern Switzerland,” among other happy arrangements.

Don’t count on it. In a region where, as Hadar observes, “unintended consequences are the name of the game,” disengagement is no more likely to yield utopia than is the militarized hyper-engagement of the Bush administration.

Lower expectations, a lower profile, lower costs, less dependence, and patience in encouraging the peoples of the region to solve their own problems: these should be the watchwords guiding U.S. policy toward the Middle East—all the while keeping our powder dry. We can’t afford to disengage any more than we can afford to remake the region in our own image. Prudence lies in striking a course somewhere between these two extremes.

_____________________________________________________

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University and the author, most recently, of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.