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When President Bush explained his “surge strategy” in Iraq to the American people last January, he defined the drama playing out across the broader Middle East as “the decisive ideological struggle of our time. On one side are those who believe in freedom and moderation. On the other side are extremists who kill the innocent and have declared their intention to destroy our way of life.”

The problem with this good-versus-evil approach to Middle Eastern conflicts is that it does not describe the struggle as the regional players themselves understand it. A U.S. strategy for promoting American interests cannot hope to be effective unless it starts with an accurate assessment of how major regional actors see their own circumstances; and seeing the struggle in the Middle East for what it really is means taking account of two broad trends in the region.

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