"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Michael Corleone's lament in "The Godfather Part III," about never being able to escape his family business of crime, could well be said about America's entanglement in the Middle East.
President Trump came into office firmly committed to the bipartisan consensus that the US had wasted more than a decade — and untold blood and treasure — waging war in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the country had neglected its own problems, like its crumbling infrastructure and forgotten working class.
In foreign policy, Washington should have been focused on the real challenge — a rising competitor in China.
And yet here we are a few years later, the old conflicts still not resolved, moving towards military escalation in the Middle East.
Qasem Soleimani was an enemy of the United States, a man who had directed his forces to battle against American troops, and who had directed Iran's military operations in the region. The Trump administration was justified in targeting him in moral terms. But why has it placed itself in a situation where, for two years now, it has been ratcheting up tensions in the most volatile part of the world? What American interests are being served by this strategy? What is its goal?
Trump's policy towards Iran has, from the start, been marked by ideology rather than common sense. He inherited a manageable strategic situation. Tehran's march towards a nuclear arsenal had been stopped.
Every outside intelligence agency, including Israel's, concluded that Iran was abiding by the nuclear agreement. The country remained active in spreading its influence across the region, as it had for years, so that challenge to America and its allies remained.
But Trump withdrew from the agreement, tightened the economic noose around Iran and designated its Revolutionary Guards as terrorists. This "maximum pressure" campaign seemed geared toward nothing less than regime change — a goal Trump has denied.
With the killing of General Soleimani, any prospect of a new nuclear deal or any negotiations with the Iranians has evaporated. Washington has expanded hostilities with no clear objective or endpoint.
In January 2007, when President George W. Bush announced the surge, sending thousands more troops into Iraq, I happened to be having lunch with a well-connected Chinese friend. I asked his opinion of the escalation.
His response: "We would hope that you would send the entire American Army into Iraq and stay for another 10 years. Meanwhile, we will keep building up our economy."
It's easy to get into another conflict in the Middle East. The place is unstable, there are lots of real bad guys, and many of the locals want America to come and fight their battles for them. But getting dragged back into the morass, once again getting mired in other peoples' quarrels, losing another decade as China and others march on — that would be the surest path to America's strategic decline.