It is hard for us in the West to understand how a 17th century disagreement among believers regarding leadership succession could cause so much human carnage through 14 centuries of Middle Eastern history. In 1921, Winston Churchill, aware of the thicket into which he had entered in calling for the Cairo Conference, lamented being drawn into its talons. Nevertheless, the Middle East whose creation he presided over is largely still with us.
Dr. Haim Hariri, former president of the Weizmann Institute of Education, noted early in this century that the entire Muslim world is "totally dysfunctional" and would still be so if the Israeli presence was not in its midst. He describes the Muslim world as being "22 nations with 300 million people covering an area larger than the U.S. or Europe."
Despite its energy resources, it only produces one-half the GDP of California. "Almost everybody in this region blames this situation on the United States, on Israel, on Western Civilization, on Judaism, on Christianity, and on anyone and anything except themselves." Dr. Hariri indicts the "vast silent majority" of "decent, honest good people" in the region as enablers of those who have brought this plague on themselves and the rest of the world.
What are we to do about it? Bloodthirsty Sunni warriors are pouring over Iraq's border with Syria. They now control the western Iraqi desert and are in a position to keep Baghdad under pressure.
The Middle East, Churchill believed, was virtually unruleable: The region reflects "the antagonisms of centuries. There are always scores to be settled ... peace has only reigned when a major power has shown ... that it will maintain its will," he said. The U.S. has learned this lesson the hard way and has a substantial legacy of war dead and damaged bodies to remind us that the cost of freedom is high.
For the average American, international respect and credibility are an elusive concept when compared to heartbreak at home.
If this was Churchill's world, with England still pre-eminent, I would be tempted to call for another Cairo Conference to reflect petro dollars that now drive Middle Eastern economies and changes in world power in the 21st century.
America is distracted by its own need to come to terms with an unsustainable government.
We must direct our energy inward until we can arrive at a sustainable political bargain.
America does not have the will to stay the course in the Middle East, but its sacrifices have bought some good will that might allow us to be a broker. The reality of a Mesopotamian Sunni state appears to be upon us and has caught our leadership virtually unaware.
We have mobilized about 500 trainers and forward placement air combat spotters for air support that we have yet to commit.
We will need to do that at a minimum, and the lessons of more than a millennium suggest that we would be well advised to get out ahead of the reality on the ground - to embrace a peaceful Sunni state that rids itself of its current bloody goals and to nudge it to a more peaceful purpose.
To be the consistent force Churchill believed was necessary to bring this about, we will need to maintain a military presence in line with the 10,000 troops we asked for in 2008.
That in itself, however, is not enough. We must also provide additional military assistance funding and economic support to that which should be forthcoming from its energy-rich neighbors as an investment in peace through regional redevelopment and prosperity.
Anyone for a Middle Eastern Marshall Plan?
Robert E. Freer Jr.
Robert Freer, chairman of the Free Enterprise Foundation, is a veteran of more than four decades representing clients before the federal government. He recently retired as the BB&T professor at The Citadel.