The conventional wisdom is that the United States is so tied down that it can't do much about the rocket attacks on Israel, the blatant sponsorship of terrorists by Iran and Syria, or the Iranian nuclear program.
Oil prices are already sky-high. Any unilateral American action might disrupt tight global supplies. That would derail the economies of our Western allies and only further enrich enemies with windfall profits.
Trying to win hearts and minds for the fragile democracy in Iraq also means we can't afford to offend Arab sensitivities elsewhere. And a lame-duck George Bush, low in the polls and facing uncertain congressional elections this fall, certainly doesn't want to involve the American taxpayer with more costly commitments abroad.
But despite that sound conventional wisdom, an exasperated West is running out of choices in the Middle East.
For years, the Arab world clamored for the Israel "problem" to be solved. Then peace and security would at last supposedly reshape the Middle East. The Western nations understood the "problem" as being Israeli retention of lands it had captured in Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon after defeating a series of Arab forces bent on destroying the Jewish state.
But after the Israeli departure from Sinai, Gaza and Lebanon, and billions of dollars in American aid to Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, there is still not much progress toward peace. Past Israeli magnanimity was seen as weakness. Now Israel's reasoned diplomacy has earned it another round of kidnapping, ransom and rocket attacks.
Finally, the world is accepting that the Middle East problem was never about so-called occupied land but only about the existence of Israel itself. Hezbollah and Hamas, and those in their midst who tolerate them (or vote for them), didn't so much want Israel out of Lebanon and Gaza as pushed into the Mediterranean altogether. And since there will be no second Holocaust, the Israelis may well soon transform a perennial terrorist war that they can't easily win into a conventional aerial one against a terrorist-sponsoring Syria that they can.
For its part, the United States has spent thousands of lives and billions in treasure trying to birth democracy in Iraq. We wished to end our old cynical support for Middle East dictators that earned us such scorn and instead give liberated Iraqis a choice other than either theocracy or autocracy.
In multilateral fashion, America has also welcomed the help of the European Union, the United Nations, China and Russia in convincing the Iranians of the folly of producing nuclear weapons. But like Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran does not wish to parley just as the beheaders and kidnappers in Iraq don't, either.
The two most liberal societies in Europe Denmark and the Netherlands welcomed almost anyone to their shores from the Middle East. Their multicultural hospitality was supposed to have led to a utopian "diverse" nation of various races, nationalities and religions.
Instead, such liberality has earned both small nations pariah status in the Muslim world for the supposed indiscretions of a few freewheeling filmmakers and cartoonists.
Yet for all their threats, what the Islamists from Hezbollah in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to the Iranian government in Tehran to the jihadists in Iraq's Sunni Triangle don't understand is that they are slowly pushing tired Westerners into a corner. If diplomacy, or aid, or support for democracy, or multiculturalism, or withdrawal from contested lands, does not satisfy radical Islamists, what would?
What then would be the new Western approach to terrorism? Hard and quick retaliation but without our past concern for nation-building, or offering a democratic alternative to theocracy and autocracy, or even worrying about whether other Muslims are unfairly lumped in with Islamists who operate freely in their midst.
Any new policy of retaliation in light both of Sept. 11 and the messy efforts to birth democracies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank would be something of an exasperated return to the old cruise-missile payback. Yet in the new world of Iranian nukes and Hezbollah missiles, the West would hit back with something far greater than a cruise missile.
If they are not careful, a Syria or Iran really will earn a conventional war not more futile diplomacy or limited responses to terrorism. And history shows that massive attacks from the air are something that the West does well.
So in the meantime, let us hope that democracy prevails in Iraq, that our massive aid is actually appreciated by the Middle East, that diplomacy ultimately works with Iran, that Syria quits supporting terrorists, and that Hamas and Hezbollah cease their rocket attacks against Israel more for all their sakes than ours.