There are certain consistent ironies to both the security situation in the Middle East and US policy. Blink for half a century and far too little has changed. America’s erratic efforts at political reform pre-date the rise of Nasser. The Arab-Israeli issue first took form in the late 1940s, created its current pattern of divisions between Israeli and Palestinian in 1967, and has been as much of a war process as a peace process ever since. The US has been talking about reducing dependence on Middle East oil imports since the embargo in 1973, and increased its dependence in the process.

Developments may have improved the lives of millions, but even with US aid the Middle East still lags behind. A half-century of efforts to create a new security structure in the region has had no more success than the Baghdad Pact of 1955. The US inherited a power vacuum in the Gulf from Britain in the early 1970s, and its efforts to make Iran and Saudi Arabia security pillars foundered in the late 1970s. The fall of the Shah, the hostage crisis, and the Iran-Iraq war have been followed by the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq and concern over Iranian nuclear weapons. The tensions of Arab nationalism have been replaced by concerns over Islamic extremism and terrorism in what the US now calls the “long war”.

It is easy to call for sudden and dramatic improvements in both the security and stability of the Middle East and the quality of US foreign policy. But the problems in the Middle East are so broad and complex that they are far more difficult to solve than anyone would like. President Bush may be able to get international pressure to halt Iran’s nuclear developments, and he can give the Arab-Israeli peace effort a higher profile, but his ability to achieve any kind of stability in Iraq is dubious at best.

Barring some sudden reversal in its dealings with Iran, the current US surge in Baghdad at best buys limited security in a nation divided by Arab Shiite versus Arab Sunni, Arab versus Kurdish, and Shiite versus Shiite differences, as well as a major neo-Salafi-dominated insurgency. Iraq has had elections, but still lacks a settled constitution, meaningful signs of economic development, and major moves towards political conciliation.

The result is not going to be any quick move towards development and stability. The next US president will inherit an ‘Iraq problem’; the main question being whether the US leaves – and tries to influence events from the outside – or is successful enough to stay. If it does win the latter kind of victory, it then faces at least half a decade of further economic and military aid and efforts to achieve real conciliation.

So the question is not whether the US can win in Iraq, but rather how much it is perceived to have lost. At this point, Arabs, Iranians, Europeans and most of the world outside the US already perceive the US as having invaded without international sanction or legitimate cause, having blundered badly in nation building and security operations, and caused serious suffering to the Iraqi people. Only the next president can ease the resulting anger and damage to the US’ reputation.

Several things are also clear about the rest of US policy in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is simply too divisive and too dangerous to ignore. Iran is not emerging as a serious power, but it can be deeply destabilising if its nuclear ambitions, links to Iraq, and threat to the Arab- Israeli peace process are not dealt with. The US faces as serious an indirect threat from Islamic extremism as its regional allies face from a direct threat, and it will have to deal with all of these problems at once.

Moreover, the next US president will have to adopt a far more realistic approach towards moderate Arab regimes and reformers, and in rebuilding trust in the US. Whether in North Africa, the Levant or the Gulf, the US cannot solve any important problem by itself, or make real progress without strong regional allies. It also cannot make effective use of its military power unless it has local political support, and it cannot deal with terrorism and Islamic extremism unless the leading nations, intellectuals, and religious leaders of the Middle East meet this challenge in ways that deprive extremists of their credibility and popular support.

The question is also not whether the next US president can do this. He or she clearly can. The question is whether he or she will.

Anthony H Cordesman is a former national security adviser and holds the Arleigh A Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington