In circumstances such as this, there are two broad ways of employing military power. The first is to wait things out—insulating yourself from the problem’s worst effects while promoting a nonviolent solution from within. This requires patience and comes with no guarantee of ultimate success. With all the usual caveats attached, this is the approach the United States took during the Cold War. The second approach is more direct. It aims to eliminate the problem through sustained, relentless military action. This entails less patience but incurs greater near-term costs. After a certain amount of shilly-shallying, it was this head-on approach that the Union adopted during the Civil War.
In the War for the Greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between. In effect, it chose aggravation. With politicians and generals too quick to declare victory and with the American public too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination.
In what ranks as the ultimate irony, the circumstances that had made the Persian Gulf worth fighting for in the first place have ceased to pertain. If today the American way of life still depends, for better or for worse, on having access to plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas, then the Western Hemisphere, not the Persian Gulf, deserves top billing in the Pentagon’s hierarchy of strategic priorities. Defending Canada and Venezuela should take precedence over defending Saudi Arabia and Iraq. To put it another way, the United States would be better served to secure its own neighborhood rather than vainly attempting to police the Greater Middle East—and it would likely enjoy greater success, to boot.