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Watching today's angsty reactions to the Soleimani hit reminded me once again why Americans keep failing in the Middle East.

Let me explain.

1. One common response I see: "Soleimani was bad but taking him out requires a comprehensive strategy. Cycles of violence will solve nothing. We need a path to peace. We must address the causes of terrorism. We need a plan to win this war and achieve a state of lasting justice."
2. To think the US can come up with (and impose) a comprehensive strategy to stop a multifaceted regional war is the height of ignorance and hubris. The Middle East will be plagued by conflict for the foreseeable future regardless of our well-laid plans. That's for starters.
3. It's possible -- now hang on folks -- there will be no peace in the Middle East for awhile. Americans eager for a grand settlement that puts every man at ease beneath his own vine and fig tree need to manage their expectations. We want justice, but it's not really up to us.
4. There is no strategy for peace, only tactics of power. "Cycle of violence" is just the way things work. Groups compete in low-intensity, tit-for-tat skirmishes rather than large conventional wars. You kill my guy, I kill yours. Stronger side wins, other side settles.
5. Americans like me want to break the cycle but, again, that's not really an option. Rather than try to break the cycle we should master it, but in the context of our own values. This means balance of power politics. It means building alliances. It means ground game.
6. Addressing root causes is attractive but it kind of requires curbing human nature and "West-splaining" to Muslims why we understand Islam better than they do. Invest (way) more in education. Give religious leaders a role. But know that it won't solve problems in the near term.
7. Of course we could decide to withdraw from this mess altogether. But that's an ethical decision too. Conflict will occur whether we're engaged or not. Is it better to wield our power toward better (if imperfect) outcomes, or let nature take its course? Hard question.
8. Between withdrawal and invasion is the preferred path of limited engagement: neither leave the Middle East to its own devices nor try to shape it in our image. Deploy power against power to restrain the worst actors, mitigate outbreak of total war, and protect our allies.
9. Absent shared values, power prevails. Competing narratives cannot reason from common principles. You can try to change the other's narrative but good luck. Better to obey the logic of limits: strike a balance, define boundaries, and enjoy the silence that stalemate brings.
10. It may seem counterintuitive that smarter use of power is the best path to peace but I can say from experience on the ground that somehow it works. I could make the Christian argument for why but maybe another day. Basically power equilibrium breeds stability and pluralism.
11. Ultimately this requires the occasional use of overwhelming violence. Wise statesman will be careful when and where they use it, but even the wisest cannot predict how the other side will react or when the cycle will end. Their wisdom lies in knowing the rules of the game.
12. We pride ourselves on grand strategy but fail at basic tactics. In the chaotic and unpredictable Middle East, mastery of "cycle of violence" tactics is unfortunately the starting point for any successful strategy.

It's also weirdly the best way to break the cycle.

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