Continued violence in Iraq, re-emergence of the Taleban in Afghanistan and the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah seem to have made a lasting peace in the wider Middle East as elusive as ever.

One year ago, the greater Middle East was swept by changes that promised to bring democracy, closer ties with the West and prospects for a lasting peace.  Afghanistan was freed from the oppression of the Taleban.  Following Yasser Arafat's death, Palestinians got a more moderate leader, Mahmoud Abbas.  In Iraq, the U.S.-designated political transition was making progress, despite insurgent violence.  And Lebanon, after the departure of Syrian troops, was set to become a democratic example for the region.               

Taleban Resurgence

The situation is dramatically different today. The Taleban are trying to make a comeback in Afghanistan and threaten its security despite the presence of foreign troops. Iraq may be sinking into civil war.  And fighting has shattered Lebanon before it could firmly stand on its feet.

Some analysts say the United States could have done more to help settle the region.  But Leon Hadar, a fellow at Washington's Cato Institute and author of the new book, Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, says foreign intervention in the region does more harm than good.

?And the Iraq war is an excellent example. The United States devastated Iraq, which was the counter-balance to Iran.  It encouraged the rise of a pro-Iranian Shiite regime for election in Baghdad.  It encouraged election in Lebanon, which strengthened the power of Hezbollah,? says Hadar. ?As a result of all of this, Iran has emerged as a major power in the Persian Gulf and with its allies Hezbollah and, to some extent, Hamas, decided to challenge the proxy of the United States, Israel.  And the United States is trying again to get involved and resolve the conflict until the next conflict.?

U.S. Presence in the Mideast

Hadar argues that the cost of U.S. involvement in the region exceeds its benefits.  Its close alliance with Israel has led to growing anti-Americanism in the region as well as worldwide.  Instead of the United States, Hadar contends, Europe and Asia should be more involved in securing stability in the Middle East because their economies depend on its oil, while the American economy does not.  He says the United States should help establish a European Union-led regional security system and gradually exit the region. 

But many analysts say a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East would result in more violence and could jeopardize the global economy.  Furthermore, they add, the U.S. supports democratic governments around the world, including Israel, the only real democracy in the Middle East. Geoffrey Kemp, Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center in Washington, notes that, even though the Middle East sells most of its oil to Europe, Japan, China and Korea, the price of oil affects the U.S. economy.

?And if there is any further flare-up in the [Persian] Gulf, if anything happened to Saudi Arabia, the price of oil would go through the ceiling and we would suffer just as much as the Japanese or the Europeans,? says Kemp. ?So we have a vital strategic interest in stability in the Gulf, primarily because we are so sensitive to the price of oil.?

Kemp says no other country has the military or economic power to assume the leadership role in the Middle East.  But, he says, America's influence will be undermined if the United States fails in its role of moderator and peacemaker.

Some critics say that U.S. policy in the Middle East, increasingly seen as favoring Israel, may cause long-term damage to the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, recently called for a more balanced U.S. approach to the regional crisis. ?Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But, it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.  That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice,? says Hagel. ?Achieving lasting resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is as much in Israel's interest as any other country in the world.  It is in Israel's interest, as much as ours, that the United States be seen by all states in the Middle East as fair.  This is the currency of trust.?

Senator Hagel agrees with a number of political analysts who say that a lasting peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved without the engagement of two major regional powers, Iran and Syria. But many analysts balk at negotiating with regimes known to sponsor terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation in Washington says such negotiations would be morally wrong. ?Taking a hard line on Syria and Iran is a principled stand, which, in the end, is going to make the world safer for everybody.? James Carafano says democratic processes take a long time, and there are setbacks.  He says the United States cannot be expected to solve the region's deep-rooted problems in a short time.  Nor can it abandon its allies in the Middle East to fight terrorists alone.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.