Doyle McManus

Here’s the nightmare scenario that kept Obama administration officials awake at night this summer as they watched the black-masked guerrillas of Islamic State sweep across Iraq: First, the insurgents could invade Baghdad, toppling Iraq’s government and forcing a Saigon-style evacuation of the US Embassy. Then they could move into Jordan, a close US ally that has maintained a peaceful border with Israel for a generation. From there, they could even threaten Saudi Arabia, the linchpin of the world’s oil markets.

To most Americans, Islamic State is scary mostly as a terrorist threat, a new version of Al Qaeda with a grisly penchant for beheading US citizens. That’s the image President Obama emphasized in his speech announcing a US-led offensive last week: “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple,” he said.

But Islamic State is more than that: It’s an insurgent army that has defeated traditional military units in Syria and Iraq and has swelled in power by seizing weapons and conscripting recruits. It has taken and held a significant swath of territory - something Al Qaeda never even attempted.

That makes it a danger to almost every country in the already unstable Middle East; and that, plus the potential for future terrorism - but not the beheadings, nor the massacres in Iraq - is what prompted Obama and his aides to launch the large-scale offensive he announced last week.

The Middle East never stops being a problem for the United States, no matter how hard a president tries to pivot away to other regions. The reason isn’t merely oil, or Israel or even terrorism, although those factors count, of course. Instead, the underlying problem is that after more than a decade of war and revolution, the old order of the Middle East - corrupt, inefficient but stable governments living within their borders - has broken down.

A decade of wars and uprisings has weakened (or, in some cases, toppled) old regimes, but it hasn’t replaced them with effective new ones.

The brief upsurge of democracy movements in the Arab Spring of 2011 didn’t solve that problem; instead, it opened new doors for radicalism, sectarian division and tribalism.

The terrorism we fear is mostly a product of that chaos. So the strategic, long-term goal for any US president, argues Martin Indyk, who served as Obama’s chief Middle East negotiator until earlier this year, must be to “create a new order.”

That won’t be easy, of course, especially when Americans (and their president) are still mourning their losses from earlier expeditions into the Arab world and are determined to have a smaller footprint in the region. But Obama appears, at least tentatively, to agree with the goal.

The president’s effort in Iraq is already larger than the two counter-terrorism campaigns he described as models: Yemen or Somalia. In only a few weeks, he has deployed more than 1,000 additional military personnel and launched more than 160 airstrikes to stop Islamic State’s advance.

Obama has “turned his Middle East policy around,” Indyk wrote last week. “We were in the process of withdrawing from the Middle East, and that has had a dramatic impact on our influence with all the players there. Now we’re coming back - gradually [and] hesitatingly, no doubt, but the direction is clear.”

The most obvious reversal, of course, was Obama’s decision to send troops back into Iraq - even if, so far, they are barred from direct combat - less than three years after withdrawing.

Obama also changed his mind about Syria’s moderate opposition, which he long dismissed as incapable but now describes as a key US partner. And he has revived the old US alliance with Saudi Arabia and other governments, an essential part of any strategy if the US wants to avoid the appearance of a Western military campaign against Muslims.

When Egypt’s military overthrew the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the United States initially condemned the coup and halted military deliveries. That led to a pronounced chill in the US-Saudi partnership because the Saudi royal family saw Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and supported the coup.

But when Secretary of State John F. Kerry traveled to the Middle East last week to seek help in the fight against Islamic State, Saudi Arabia hosted the meeting - and Egypt’s foreign minister was there. “I only see agreement,” said Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister.

The lesson: For now, faced with the threat of Islamic State, the United States’ first priority in the Arab world isn’t democracy; it’s stability. If that sounds familiar, there’s a reason. It echoes the policies the United States pursued for half a century, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the brief optimism of the Arab Spring.–LA Times