It’s hard to read or watch any news without learning about some disturbing development in the Middle East. Americans ought to pay close attention to those developments. That’s the opinion of Meghan O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She was a special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. O’Sullivan recently delivered North Carolina State University’s annual John W. Pope Lecture on the topic “Making Sense of the New Middle East.” She discussed key themes from her presentation with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: As people are hearing about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, all the things going on over there, some people may be saying, “This is overwhelming, mind-boggling. Why should I care about this stuff?” Why should we care about these things?

O’Sullivan: Sure. And I understand that after the last 10 years that a lot of Americans have what we could call Middle East fatigue, and so to actually find ourselves with an ever-increasingly complicated situation in the Middle East may strain the tolerance of many Americans. But the reality is that we have enduring, very large interests in the Middle East. And just to name a few of them, they’re very familiar interests.

We continue to have big interests in the Middle East providing energy, not directly to the United States, but to global energy markets. That matters a lot to our economy. … Also we have a very real and enduring interest in Israel’s security and the viability of an Israeli state in the Middle East. We also have an interest in seeing that different states in the Middle East don’t become — that extremism doesn’t grow in the Middle East, that actually moderation over time grows.

And then, finally, we have a very positive interest. We have an interest to the extent that we’re in a position to do so, to helping people who are embarking on enormous political transitions that will hopefully lead to them living under better governments, which are more accountable to their own people, hopefully more integrated into the global, international economy, and hopefully over time will be sources of stability for the region and for the world.

Kokai: Speaking of stability, it’s never been stable in the Middle East, but for a number of years, those who followed these issues kind of knew what to expect from various countries. But after what became known as the Arab Spring, our ideas about a lot of these countries have changed. What sorts of things are you, as an expert on these topics, looking at most closely in Egypt and Syria and Israel and all of these places?

O’Sullivan: Well, I think that the Middle East — it’s easy for us to look back and say it was stable, but we have to remember that, you know, Saddam invaded a number of his neighbors, that there were multiple wars with Israel, there were all kinds of things that always made this place a little bit uncertain. But now, as you point out, it’s more uncertain than ever. And I’m looking at a number of dynamics in the Middle East.

It’s not that there’s just one dynamic that’s characterizing the entire place. It’s still an extremely diverse place. I’m looking at, on the one hand, the post-revolutionary states, primarily of North Africa, but maybe also Yemen, and these are countries that are embarking on a very important but very difficult journey of building new institutions. So they’re going to be inward-looking, really focusing on institution building and nation building.

At the same time, I’m looking at the Gulf monarchies. These are countries that have very different governing systems. They’re monarchies for the most part, and they have a lot of resources. So they’re able to deal with pressure for political change in other ways. So they have a different trajectory, but their stability and how they handle these pressures is equally important. I’m also looking at the dynamic [of] Iran, Iraq, and Syria — three very different countries that are connected by sectarian dimensions and by Iran’s aggressive push to shape the Middle East. So again, it’s impossible just to look at one thing, but those are three big dynamics in the Middle East today.

Kokai: As we see what’s going on in the Middle East today, we know that there are a lot of concerns about Iran, about Syria. What do you see as sort of the top issue that’s on the plate that Americans should be concerned about at this point?

O’Sullivan: It’s very hard to pick just one. I think the one that certainly has received the most attention and probably has the prospect of being the most destabilizing is Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. This is not a new issue, obviously, but it really seems to be coming to a head with the Iranians pursuing — in the face of all kinds of international opposition — aggressively pursuing the capability to develop a nuclear weapon.

And what is really forcing debate, private and public debate, is this question about how long does the international community have before Iran reaches that threshold, and what steps should be taken to prevent Iran, if any, to prevent Iran from reaching that. And there’s the hope on the part of the Obama administration that the economic and political pressure that Iran is under — which is quite substantial — will lead the regime in Tehran to decide to make a change, to shift away from the pursuit of a nuclear weapon in order to get relief from these sanctions and other strictures.

There are others, and I’m among them, who would like to see negotiations work, but who are very skeptical that they will work. I look at the internal dynamics in Iran and I think it’s very unlikely that the regime is going to be in a position to engage in a long-term negotiation. If negotiations are not going to be the way out of this problem, the question is: Is military force going to be the way out? And if military force is going to be deployed, will it be Israeli military force, or would it be American military force? Or in the best-case scenario, would it be military force by an international coalition, a group of countries as wide as possible that really sees Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon as being so destabilizing to the region and the world that they come together to take action?

Kokai: During the last portion of your Pope Lecture, you outlined several steps of things that the United States could, should, ought to do in dealing with the Middle East. What are some of those?

O’Sullivan: One of the things I was trying to get at is going back to the beginning of our conversation about this — fatigue, American fatigue with the Middle East, and I think you combine that American fatigue with suspicion on the part of a lot of Arab states and Arab people about the United States. A lot of people look at the U.S., and they say, “Well, for decades the United States really propped up these authoritarian, kind of corrupt dictators.” And so a lot of people are nervous about what role America might play in the Middle East.

I’m afraid that that will lead to a situation where America and the Middle East part ways, and, in fact, as I mentioned at the beginning, I believe the United States has a lot of enduring interests in the Middle East, and I would also say it has a lot of ability to help countries successfully make this transition.

Now, the issue is, how do we do that in a way that is welcome and constructive? And it means playing a very different role in the Middle East than we have in the last decade. And it involves things like negotiating a new relationship with the people of these countries. We primarily dealt with the Mubaraks, with the Salehs, with their governments.

We really need to focus on the people in these countries and on building enduring relationships, weaving the fabric of long-term, bilateral relationships which have to do with civil society, have to do with defending institutions, have to do with educational exchanges, have to do with economics. That’s going to be a very big piece here, and I don’t just mean economic aid. I mean trade and other things. These should occupy an important part in American policy.

But we also have to find a constructive way for dealing with Islamist governments and not overreact to the success that Islamist parties have had at the polls, and find a way to promote what we see as being essential principles and values, but at the same time, being clear that we’re interested in the success of these countries as they navigate this difficult period.