America has a tragically bad track record when it comes to understanding the political dynamics of the Middle East.
So what should we make of the popular uprisings now sweeping the region? How will they affect the United States? What about oil?
I posed those questions to John Stempel, a career foreign service officer who is now a senior professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, which he directed from 1993 until 2003.
Stempel's 24-year diplomatic career included a dozen years overseas, five of which were at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran just before the 1979 hostage crisis. He wrote a book, Inside the Iranian Revolution, based on the experience. A former naval officer, he also held senior Middle East policy jobs with the Defense and State departments.
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While the turmoil is likely to continue for some time, Stempel is hopeful that change could be good for America — if we play our cards right. "Understanding how the Muslim world functions politically is our basic problem," he said.
The Internet-enabled uprisings point to an age divide in the Middle East. Young, educated people there tend to be more sympathetic to American ideals, such as democracy. Still, there is less separation between church and state than in Western societies. "Whatever comes out of the governments will involve a religious element," Stempel said.
Those are just some of the things Americans must keep in mind, he said. Another is the distinct cultural and political differences among nations in the Middle East, which are the results of unique histories of tribal, religious and political strife.
The king of Jordan will likely be able to pacify unrest, because that nation has a political system in which many people feel they have a voice. On the other hand, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi is probably on his way out.
Iran remains "a serious problem," Stempel said, "But we should back off and let China and the European countries deal with Iran." China could be especially influential because it has a multibillion-dollar oil deal with that nation.
Stempel thinks America would be wise to maintain good working relationships with all factions in the Middle East as societies change and new governments emerge.
"It doesn't have to be perfectly democratic, as long as you don't have ayatollahs screaming 'death to the infidels,'" he said. "If you see people who want reasonable popular participation dominating the dialogue over the fundamentalists, then things will be going our way, I think."
The best thing American government and business leaders can do is try to create partnerships that are mutually beneficial, Stempel said. That is especially true with oil. The United States has 4.5 percent of the world's population, but consumes 40 percent of its gasoline.
"There's always going to be a shortage of oil," he said. "The demand is growing so much in India and China, we're never going to be in a soft market."
There's no way America's domestic oil production can be increased enough to make more than a dent in the increasingly international market, despite what the "drill baby, drill" crowd thinks. America needs oil from the Middle East, but those nations need Western technology and expertise to maximize the value for their oil reserves, Stempel said.
That creates fertile ground for consortiums of American and international oil companies to do business in a reshaped Middle East. Stempel thinks deals could eventually be done with some of the biggest producers: Iraq, Algeria, Iran and Libya.
He also sees opportunities for America in helping the region develop agriculture and, perhaps, even nuclear energy, with proper safeguards.
Stempel, who was very critical of the Bush administration's disastrous Middle East policies at that time, gives good marks so far to the Obama administration for keeping dialogue open with all factions in the region. He thinks Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is doing an especially good job.
A self-described "radical moderate," Stempel said he fears that the right-wing elements that have seized control of the Republican Party will make it harder for America to forge good working relationships with these new and changing Middle East governments.
"The important thing is to get people to understand these countries," Stempel said. "We do have people who understand the Middle East, if they're allowed to function properly. That's been a problem since 9/11."