Exhausted by decades of failed interventions, the US and Europe are incapable of forging a united front, writes Allister Heath in an oped commentary for The Telegraph
It's taken almost 100 years, but the Western powers have finally given up trying to control the Middle East.
After strutting the globe as imperialists, first of the traditional variety, and subsequently of the liberal sort, they are beating a humiliating retreat.
Everything they have tried has failed, and they can no longer hide their impotence.
The best that can be hoped for now is a loose policy of containment, with the quadruple aim of cutting Iran's mullahs down to size, limiting Russia's influence, delivering humanitarian assistance, and preventing a flood of refugees into Europe.
But Westerners cannot aspire any longer to fundamentally reshape the region in their image.
The realists have won; the idealists and the imperialists of Left and Right routed.
No tools exist to transform warring, dysfunctional multinational dictatorships led by psychopaths into utopian liberal democracies: countries are not made of putty, and cannot be reshaped at will by outsiders, however benevolent.
They evolve organically; history and culture matter.Governments almost always fail at everything they attempt; this is also true of international relations, with military interventions usually generating calamitous unintended consequences.
Even if somebody did dream up a fully functioning peace plan for the region, it would take trillions of dollars, years of effort and the greatest military operation since World War 2.
Barring a nuclear war initiated by Iran or an attack on America of a magnitude greater than 9/11, another proper US-led invasion is unthinkable: state-building failed catastrophically, and almost everybody now realises this.
This is particularly true of Donald Trump. For all the hand-wringing about his "war-mongering", the president's strategy essentially involves disengaging as much as possible from the Middle East, while threatening extreme force to keep Iran in check.
There is virtually no support left among European and North American electorates for Bush-Blair-style action. If outsiders ever do intervene again in a massive way, they will probably be led by the Chinese or Indians, or a new alliance of emerging powers, at some point in the 2030s.
In the meantime, America and the European military powers are morally and financially exhausted, baffled by an increasingly multi-polar world, racked with internal doubts about the desirability of the democratic values they used to be so keen to export, and generally clueless about what to do next.
Even to speak of the "West" as a coherent entity makes little sense: what was once a distinct civilisation has fragmented, with the US, Brexit Britain, the EU and the rest (including Canada and Australia) diverging dramatically.
A minority of each of their electorates is now so self-loathing that it will reflexively take the side of any Middle Eastern despot, making any sort of robust policy more difficult.It has certainly become clear that Europe and North America no longer share the same values, other than superficially.
The EU is inexorably turning into a technocratic state that isn't compatible with Britain or Australia's robust democratic traditions; America is facing the slow implosion of its political settlement, amid a bitter culture war.
Attitudes to military spending vary enormously. The US still spends vast amounts; Germany is full-on pacifist, a position which will eventually wreck Nato and lead to the demise of the last post-war institutions. Britain's military is pathetically shrunken, and France's little better.
A shift in economic self-interest is the final reason why the US is giving up on the Middle East.
America is a major oil and gas producer, as a result of shale, and the era of the hydrocarbon will come to an end in a few decades' time, thanks to the rise of the electric car.
It is now vanishingly unlikely that "the West" will adopt a unified strategy, towards Iran or much else in the Middle East.
The reality is that our record in the region has been appalling since the start, and the past two decades of well-intentioned meddling have caused death, misery and destruction on a grand scale. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan: all are basket cases.
Those countries that aren't, such as the United Arab Emirates, only survive because they are quasi-absolute monarchies. Israel is the sole success story. Turkey, once seen as proof that Western values can be transplanted, is moving to the dark side.
Much of the rot began with the regional carve-up agreed during World War 1. The Sykes-Picot Treaty between France and the UK, with assent from Italy and Imperial Russia, divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. Its provisions were implemented after the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20, in which the US played a key role.
It was a catastrophe to launch all catastrophes: instead of building nation states that might have developed a workable political culture, the West imposed artificial borders which fuel conflict, including Shia-Sunni warfare, to this day.
The Kurds still don't have a homeland. Subsequent history was equally disastrous: from the Mossadegh coup to Suez to the support for Saddam Hussein to turning a blind eye to al?Qaeda to the second Gulf War to the toothless Iran nuclear deal.
None of this is to blame the West for everything, or to argue that the Middle Eastern nations somehow entirely lacked in agency. They have been extraordinarily badly served by their leaders. Other parts of the world were messed up by colonialism, yet have bounced back.
I'm equally not trying to downplay the awful nature of many of the regimes the West has targeted in recent years.
Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by the US, was a monster, a war criminal and mass murderer: his assassination was welcome. The Iranian regime is evil: it has destroyed Persia's great civilisation, persecuting women and minorities. Regime change is desperately overdue.
My point is simply that, tragically, not all of the world's problems can be resolved, and they certainly cannot all be fixed by America, Britain or some UN body. Outsiders can impose sanctions and bomb surgically, but real change must come from within.
Believe it or not, but Trump could be on to something with his new strategy. It cannot be any worse than what came before.