(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) The paradox of the new Middle East is that as America's influence declines, its ability to sustain its essential interests remains intact.
Despite all the exhilarating and disturbing changes in Egypt and the Levant, the center of gravity of the region has moved to the Gulf. And while the challenges of the Gulf are daunting, they are more familiar to Washington and more susceptible to its strategies.
The strategic relevance of Egypt and Syria stems from their connection to the notion that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will transform the Middle East to America's liking.
But the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to remain frozen. If there were a peace treaty, it could ease some of Israel's security concerns and relieve the Palestinians of the burdens of occupation, but it would have a limited impact on a region struggling with sectarian identities, resurgent religious parties and the specter of nuclear proliferation.
For the foreseeable future, moreover, Egypt is likely to be preoccupied with its internal political conflicts, while Syria struggles to sort out its civil war.
The Islamist assertiveness in the Arab states is likely to further challenge America's position. But Libya and Tunisia have never been a preoccupation of American strategists, and Egypt was inconsequential to the war in Iraq. Despite much consternation in the West, none of this is likely to affect core American interests - they lie decisively in the Gulf.
The challenge for the United States remains how to maintain access to Middle Eastern oil at reasonable prices, sustain the fragile order in Iraq and prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb. As contentious and corrosive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be, the fact is that it has not impeded America's ability to execute its policy in the Middle East.
As huge as the changes in the Arab east may be, the fact is that the United States has a better track record at preserving the balance of power in the Gulf than integrating Islamists into new political structures.
The rise of Islamist militancy, from the Palestinians' Hamas to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, always caught Washington flatfooted. Neither urging their repression nor calling for their participation in the political process ever bridged the gap between America and the Islamists. By contrast, blocking Iran from making a nuclear weapon without the use of force is not as far-fetched and unattainable as it is often made to appear. For all its inflammatory rhetoric, the Islamic Republic has immense vulnerabilities.
A regime distrusted by its neighbours and disdained by its citizens is a candidate for a successful policy of coercion. Existing efforts to stress Iran's economy could be complemented by a broad range of political moves, such as assisting dissident forces.
Moreover, under the banner of addressing the Iranian threat, the Gulf States are already setting aside their lingering differences and coming together as a more cohesive defence network.
Given their wealth and relatively limited populations, the Gulf monarchies have the possibility to reform their political systems without the risk of revolutionary convulsions. Washington could be much more vocal and forceful in letting its allies know that the path of stability means avoiding the type of repression witnessed in Bahrain.
In Iraq, Washington still benefits from the fact that Iraq's many factions and sectarian groups want to avoid another civil war. Iraq may be fragile, but as long as its core constituents prefer political wrangling to war, the task of stabilising it is remains within reach.
The Middle East is changing. But not all the changes are detrimental to America's core interests.
While the Arab awakening gripping Egypt, the Levant and North Africa may result in reduction of America's overall influence in the region, Washington is still well-positioned to sustain its presence and preserve its allies in the epicenter of the Arab world - the Gulf.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations