Try figuring out the maze of enemies, allies and neutrals in the Middle East.
In 2012, the Obama administration was on the verge of bombing the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. For a few weeks he was public enemy No. 1 because he had used chemical weapons on his own people and because he was responsible for many of the deaths in the Syrian civil war, with a casualty count that is now close to 200,000.
After Obama's red lines turned pink, we forgot about Syria. Then the Islamic State showed up with beheadings, crucifixions, rapes and mass murders through a huge swath of Iraq and Syria.
Now the United States is bombing the Islamic State. Sometimes Obama says that he is still seeking a strategy against the jihadist group. Sometimes he wants to reduce it to a manageable problem. And sometimes he says that he wants to degrade or even destroy it.
The Islamic State is still trying to overthrow Assad. If the Obama administration is now bombing the Islamic State, is it then helping Assad? Or when America did not bomb Assad, did it help the Islamic State? Which of the two should Obama bomb -- or both, or neither?
Iran is steadily on the way to acquiring a nuclear bomb. Yet for now it is arming the Kurds, dependable U.S. allies in the region who are fighting for their lives against the Islamic State and need American help. As Iran aids the Kurds, Syrians and Iraqis in the battle against the evil Islamic State, is Teheran becoming a friend, enemy or neither? Will Iran's temporary help mean that it will delay or hasten its efforts to get a bomb? Just as Iran sent help to the Kurds, it missed yet another U.N. deadline to come clean on nuclear enrichment.
Hamas just lost a war in Gaza against Israel. Then it began executing and maiming a number of its own people, some of them affiliated with Fatah, the ruling clique of the Palestinian Authority. During the war, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian state, stayed neutral and called for calm. Did he wish Israel to destroy his rival, Hamas? Or did he wish Hamas to hurt his archenemy, Israel? Both? Neither?
What about the Gulf sheikdoms? In the old days, America was enraged that some of the Saudis slyly funneled cash to al-Qaeda and yet relieved that the Saudi government was deemed moderate and pro-Western. But as Iran gets closer to its nuclear holy grail, the Gulf kingdoms now seem to be in a de facto alliance with their hated adversary, Israel. Both Sunni monarchies and the Jewish state in near lockstep oppose the radical Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas axis.
But don't look for understandable Shiite-Sunni Muslim fault lines. In this anti-Saudi alliance, the Iranians and Hezbollah are Shiites. Yet their allies, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, are Sunnis. The Syrian government is neither, being Alawite.
They all say they are against the Sunni extremist Islamic State. So if they are enemies of the Sunni monarchies and enemies of the Islamic State, is the Islamic State then a friend to these Gulf shiekdoms?
Then there is Qatar, a Sunni Gulf monarchy at odds with all the other neighboring Sunni monarchies. It is sort of friendly with the Iranians, Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas -- all adversaries of the U.S. Why, then, is Qatar the host of CENTCOM, the biggest American military base in the entire Middle East?
Is Egypt any simpler? During the Arab Spring, the Obama administration helped to ease former president and kleptocrat Hosni Mubarak out of power. Then it supported both the democratic elections and the radical Muslim Brotherhood that won them. Later, the administration said little when a military junta displaced the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which was subverting the new constitution. America was against military strongmen before it was for them, and for Islamists before it was against them.
President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan were said to have a special friendship. But based on what? Erdogan is strangling democracy in Turkey. He is a big supporter of Hamas and at times a fan of Iran. A NATO ally, Turkey recently refused to let U.S. rescue teams use its territory to stage a rescue mission of American hostages -- two of them eventually beheaded -- in Syria.
Ostensibly, America supports moderate pro-Western consensual governments that protect human rights and hold elections, or at least do not oppress their own. But there are almost no such nations in the Middle East except Israel. Yet the Obama administration has grown ever more distant from the Jewish state over the last six years.
What is the U.S. to do? Leave the Middle East alone, allowing terrorists to build a petrol-fueled staging base for another 9/11?
About the best choice is to support without qualification the only two pro-American and constitutional groups in the Middle East, the Israelis and Kurds.
Otherwise, in such a tribal quagmire, apparently there are only transitory interests that come and go.
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Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.