The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the Cold War. Yes, the next president is going to be a Cold War president but this Cold War is with Iran.
That is the real umbrella story in the Middle East today the struggle for influence across the region, with America and its Sunni Arab allies (and Israel) versus Iran, Syria and their non-state allies, Hamas and Hezbollah. As the May 11 editorial in the Iranian daily Kayhan put it, "In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the U.S."
For now, Team America is losing on just about every front. How come? The short answer is that Iran is smart and ruthless, America is dumb and weak, and the Sunni Arab world is feckless and divided. Any other questions?
The outrage of the week is the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah attempt to take over Lebanon. Hezbollah thugs pushed into Sunni neighborhoods in West Beirut, focusing particular attention on crushing progressive news outlets like Future TV, so Hezbollah's propaganda machine could dominate the airwaves. The Shiite militia Hezbollah emerged supposedly to protect Lebanon from Israel. Having done that, it has now turned around and sold Lebanon to Syria and Iran.
All of this is part of what Ehud Yaari, one of Israel's best Middle East watchers, calls "Pax Iranica." In his April 28 column in The Jerusalem Report, Yaari pointed out the web of influence that Iran has built around the Middle East from the sway it has over Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to its ability to manipulate virtually all the Shiite militias in Iraq, to its building up of Hezbollah into a force with 40,000 rockets that can control Lebanon and threaten Israel should it think of striking Tehran, to its ability to strengthen Hamas in Gaza and block any U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"Simply put," noted Yaari, "Tehran has created a situation in which anyone who wants to attack its atomic facilities will have to take into account that this will lead to bitter fighting" on the Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and Persian Gulf fronts. That is a sophisticated strategy of deterrence.
The Bush team, by contrast, in eight years has managed to put America in the unique position in the Middle East where it is "not liked, not feared and not respected," writes Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast negotiator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, in his provocative new book on the peace process, titled "The Much Too Promised Land."
"We stumbled for eight years under Bill Clinton over how to make peace in the Middle East, and then we stumbled for eight years under George Bush over how to make war there," said Miller, and the result is "an America that is trapped in a region which it cannot fix and it cannot abandon."
Look at the last few months, he said: President Bush went to the Middle East in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went in February, Vice President Dick Cheney went in March, the secretary of state went again in April, and the president is there again this week. After all that, oil prices are as high as ever and peace prospects as low as ever. As Miller puts it, America right now "cannot defeat, co-opt or contain" any of the key players in the region.
The big debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is over whether or not we should talk to Iran. Obama is in favor; Clinton has been against. Alas, the right question for the next president isn't whether we talk or don't talk. It's whether we have leverage or don't have leverage.
When you have leverage, talk. When you don't have leverage, get some by creating economic, diplomatic or military incentives and pressures that the other side finds too tempting or frightening to ignore. That is where the Bush team has been so incompetent vis-a-vis Iran.
The only weaker party is the Sunni Arab world, which is either so drunk on oil it thinks it can buy its way out of any Iranian challenge or is so divided it can't make a fist to protect its own interests or both.
We're not going to war with Iran, nor should we. But it is sad to see America and its Arab friends so weak they can't prevent one of the last corners of decency, pluralism and openness in the Arab world from being snuffed out by Iran and Syria. The only thing that gives me succor is the knowledge that anyone who has ever tried to dominate Lebanon alone Maronites, Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis has triggered a backlash and failed.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.