Coming to terms with today's Middle East, continued

Yes, back to our favorite policy theme this morning.  Robin Wright of the Post takes a sweeping look through the results of our foreign policy in the Middle East.   It isn't pretty:

The Middle East is in flames. Over the past week, war erupted among the Palestinians and their government collapsed. A Shiite shrine in Iraq was bombed -- again -- as the new U.S. military strategy showed no sign of diminishing violence. Lebanon battled a new al-Qaeda faction in the north as a leading politician was assassinated in Beirut. And Egyptian elections were marred by irregularities, including police obstructing voters, in a serious setback to democracy efforts.

U.S. policy in the region isn't faring much better, say Middle East and U.S. analysts.

"It's close to a nightmare for the administration," Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said in an interview from Dubai. "They can't catch their breath. . . . It makes Condi Rice's last year as secretary of state very daunting. What are the odds she can get virtually anything back on track?"

Each flash point has its own dynamics, but a common denominator is that leaders in each country -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- are each pivotal U.S. allies.

"The people we rely on the most to help are under siege, just as we are," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution fellow and former National Security Council staffer. "Three of the four leaders may either not make it [politically] through the end of the summer or find themselves irrelevant by then."

The broad danger is a breakdown of the traditional states and conflicts that have defined Middle East politics since the 1970s, said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Beirut office. An increasing number of places -- Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories -- now have rival claimants to power, backed by their own militaries.

Also, once divided by the Arab-Israeli conflict, the region is now the battleground for three other rivalries: the United States and its allies pitted against an Iran-Syria alliance in a proxy war regionwide, secular governments confronted by rising al-Qaeda extremism, and autocratic governments reverting to draconian tactics to quash grass-roots movements vying for democratic change.

Extremists are scoring the most points. "Gaza is the latest evidence that most of the trends are pointed in the wrong direction. It's yet another gain for radical forces. It's another gain for Iran. It's another setback for the U.S., Israel and the Sunni regimes," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and State Department policy planning chief during President Bush's first term. "The United States has not shown that moderation pays or will accomplish more than violence."

A second danger is that conflicts now overlap. "You can't look at Lebanon or Iraq or the Palestinians or Syria or Iran and try to deal with them separately anymore. You could have 10 years ago. Now they are politically and structurally linked," said Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut.

Khouri said the United States deserves a good share of the blame for a confluence of disasters spawning pessimism and anger across the region..