Six hundred years of Mideast history are now fully and finally shredding. The political structures established by the Ottoman Turks in the 1500s, especially in Iraq and Syria, have crumbled. The colonial influences and Western ways that once widely pervaded Muslim societies now reside mainly in individuals. American power that succeeded the colonial constructs is largely sapped by wars and diplomatic failures, and by regional upheavals that bewilder and overwhelm even wise policymakers.
The Mideast is being dismembered by fanatics who would enslave women and bind men's minds to a nightmarish code of conduct, by the deeply embedded corruption and inefficiency of rulers and governments historically favored by Washington, and by the ancient battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
There is no brilliant policy that can soon reverse these horrific tides. There is no way to foresee a future that still hides in turmoil. This period of bitter struggle among Muslims will persist for many years, well beyond the capacity of American military, economic, and diplomatic power to influence. Throughout this upheaval, Americans will have concerns about civilian suffering, but overshadowing this humanitarian impulse lies the potent fear that Muslim terrorists will export their jihad to the Western lands they despise almost as much as they do some of their Muslim brethren.
The beginning of wisdom for Americans is to realize that the Arab world is tumbling through an earthquake, and that no mere policy can stop it, let alone shape it. At this stage, Washington can only prepare for the aftermath. The natural American impulse is to search for solutions, for policies that can prevail against these upheavals. But for years to come, Washington will have to lower its sights from solutions to more limited and defensive measures, in effect toward simply halting the jihadi menace. Even then, Americans should expect further jihadi triumphs.