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The high-maintenance Mideast

When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel talked to me about the broad challenges facing the United States in the Mideast, one question loomed over the conversation: What does the Barack Obama administration believe the United States’ overarching strategic interests to be?

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the administration’s approach is, at the moment, a pudding without a theme. There are good reasons this is so: Each high-maintenance country presents its own intractable and contradictory set of problems. Because of the current muddle, most – actually, all – of America’s allies are trapped in a state of anxiety, unsure whether the U.S. is their friend or wants to be friends with Iran instead or whether it even knows at all what it wants to do.

I asked Hagel to simply describe the main American strategic interests in the region. I’ll quote from his answer at length:

“The main strategic interests have not changed, I don’t think, from administration to administration. A peace settlement with the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has been Bush policy, Clinton policy, going back to Bush 41. ... So, a peace settlement, and working with our allies to bring some security and stability to the region, to continue to develop their respect for human dignity, recognizing that the ethnic and religious currents are running against those currents. You can’t impose, you can’t occupy, you have to work with the people there. It takes time.”

“Is combating Iranian influence part of this strategy?” I asked.

“It is, it certainly has been so since 1979. It hasn’t changed since then. Tactics change, but the strategy doesn’t change.”

He then returned to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “If there’s an Israeli-Palestinian solution – one of the things is, you can’t have hope or prosperity without stability and some security. It’s impossible to do.”

Hagel was careful not to use the expression “human rights” but “human dignity.” The U.S.’s Saudi friends, and many others – the Egyptian military, for instance, for which Hagel lately has been acting as a combination scold and therapist – aren’t very much interested in hearing U.S. officials talk about human rights. And, in any case, the Obama administration has de-emphasized human rights in the region, except when it suspended aid to the Egyptian military as punishment for gunning down civilians (although, the secretary of state, John Kerry, then said the aid suspension wasn’t really meant to be punishment at all).

Hagel, like much of Washington’s foreign policy elite, still seems enamored of the idea that reaching a final agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would help solve many of the Mideast’s other problems. I wasn’t that surprised, in fact, that he listed this item first in his description of America’s strategic challenges. Hagel is partial to a theory, known in shorthand as “linkage,” that is no longer operative in reality. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is irrelevant to the great earthquakes of recent Mideast history.

As Dennis Ross, the former Mideast peace negotiator, argues, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is an important issue to solve, but it’s important to solve for its own sake. I spoke to Ross after my talk with Hagel, and he said: “I do accept that some of our friends would be less on the defensive” if there were peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “And I would say that it could take away one of the recruit tools for terrorists. But just one, and there are many.”

An Israeli-Palestinian peace accord will not fix problems of illiteracy, water shortage, misogyny, ethnic violence. It won’t make Egypt governable or stop Iraq from dissolving. And it certainly won’t stop the Syrian civil war.

The U.S. should, of course, try to bring about peace between the two sides (not that this is a great time to do so), but it shouldn’t be diverted from more important tasks, and it shouldn’t believe that a peace treaty is a panacea.

Hagel is on firmer ground when arguing, as Ross does, that a two-state solution is in the best interest of Israel. “It’s not in Israel’s interest for war to continue, because the dynamics are now escalating in terms of weapons of mass destruction and non-state actors – exactly where we are today. I’m not sure you can argue that Israel is safer today than it was 10 years ago, when you look what is going on Syria and in Lebanon, just to name two.”

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.