JERUSALEM — After a presidential campaign dominated by reality-show-style insults and put-downs, the winner of next month’s American election will wake up the following morning to find a far more daunting reality waiting: a Middle East awash in conflict and disarray, desperate for American leadership.
The 45th president will inherit problems associated with the region that are vastly more challenging than any in a generation as the old order has given way to a kaleidoscopic mix of alliances, rivalries and overlapping crises. In the past, presidents have viewed the region through the prism of the Cold War, terrorism or Israel, but those paradigms have shifted dramatically.
Today there is no single overarching issue but multiple ones. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are caught up in war. Turkey and Jordan are inundated by refugees. Russia has reasserted itself as a major player in the region. Libya is searching for stability after the fall of its longtime dictator. The Kurds are on the march. Egypt is fighting off a terrorist threat at home. And Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a profound struggle for the future of the region.
“In truth, the Middle Eastern order is so fragmented right now that grand visions are utterly unrealistic, if they ever were,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Bahrain. “Circumstances, not mere preferences, dictate policy making, and circumstances are dire.”
Like others in the region, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has spent a lot of time lately expressing concern to visiting Americans about the consequences of an American retreat from the region.
And like others, Mr. Netanyahu has been hedging his bets. He has visited Moscow several times in the past year — not because he prefers Russia to America, his advisers said, but because the Kremlin is filling a vacuum left by Washington.
“The most important challenge for the new president is to figure out what he wants in this region and restore American credibility,” said Efraim Inbar, the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv. “What the region sees now is American weakness.”
That should not necessarily mean an expansive American military presence, Mr. Inbar added. Indeed, there is little appetite in the region for a return to the more interventionist policies of President George W. Bush. But if Mr. Bush was judged to be too assertive, many here consider Mr. Obama too restrained, and hope to see some middle ground.
To be sure, America’s approach to the Middle East has rarely followed a consistent set of goals or course of action, as Patrick Tyler wrote in his book “A World of Trouble,” a history of 10 presidents and the region. Each president managed the Middle East from different perspectives. Richard M. Nixon saw it as part of his chess match with Moscow. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton pursued diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and its enemies. Mr. Bush and his father focused on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Mr. Obama certainly inherited a messy situation in the region with the war in Iraq. But by the time he took office, Mr. Bush’s troop surge and Gen. David H. Petraeus’s strategy change had helped turn the war around to the point that Mr. Bush felt free to negotiate a three-year withdrawal plan with Baghdad that Mr. Obama then followed.
The next president will not find such a clear-cut playbook waiting. Like Mr. Bush before him, Mr. Obama is on track in his final months in office to leave his successor an improved military situation on the ground as American-backed Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces retake territory from the Islamic State.
But even if the terrorist group is battered on the battlefield, the Middle East remains torn by so many other conflicts that it requires a scorecard to keep track. The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 failed to deliver democracy except perhaps in Tunisia; instead they upended the traditional structures and touched off a civil war in Syria that has killed or wounded hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions and continues to consume much of the region.
Mr. Obama has defended his resistance to being dragged deeper into the Syrian war beyond the limited engagements against the Islamic State, arguing that it would only enmesh America in yet another bloody quagmire. But even if the next president imposes a no-fly zone, as Hillary Clinton has promised, or aligns more closely with Russia, as Donald J. Trump has suggested, the political crosscurrents will remain treacherous.
The United States has encouraged its Kurdish allies to press the fight against the Islamic State, but not to progress so far that they would provoke Turkey, another American ally. Egypt and Saudi Arabia ostensibly are on the same side in the Syrian civil war, but tension flared this month when the Saudis halted fuel shipments to Egypt and the Egyptians backed a Russian-sponsored United Nations resolution on Syria that Saudi Arabia opposed.
“At the core of this geopolitical confrontation is the struggle over the future security architecture of the Middle East,” said Bassel F. Salloukh, a regional expert at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. The next president, Mr. Salloukh said, must figure out a new regional arrangement that takes into account all of the main actors and their interests, including Iran and Turkey. “This is a truly herculean enterprise, but nothing less than this can restore a semblance of stability,” he added.
All over Washington, foreign policy specialists have spent the fall busily crafting their own suggestions for the next president to consider in the Middle East. Organizations like the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the Middle East Institute and the Center for American Progressare issuing reports or holding conferences. Most of them are predicated on the bipartisan conclusion that Mr. Obama’s approach to the region has not worked and requires a reboot.
Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the next president should address underlying issues of governing, corruption and repression in the region. “The United States cannot on its own solve these problems, obviously,” Ms. Hawthorne said, “but we can be doing far more to help those in the region who are trying to find peaceful, constructive solutions.”
Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria who now directs the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said the new administration should find ways to help restructure the region’s economics.
“A key priority for a new administration is to abandon ‘nation building,’ which is beyond even the capacity of the United States,” Mr. Djerejian said, noting the traumatic experience in Iraq. Instead, it should “establish effective development strategies in close partnership with countries in the region.”
James F. Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Bush and ambassador to Iraq under Mr. Obama, said the Middle East had gone from being a “knowable” security problem that could usually be contained to one that was “seemingly in free fall.”
Neither of his former bosses found the right formula, said Mr. Jeffrey, who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Bush’s excessive use of military force disillusioned the American political base for engagement,” he said. “Then Obama’s timid use of military force disillusioned the American regional diplomatic base in allied governments.”
The next president, Mr. Jeffrey added, will have to restore relations with allies and, with the Islamic State apparently in retreat, concentrate on deterring Iran. But whoever sits in the Oval Office should “avoid the temptation of trying to tackle the fundamental problems” afflicting the region, he said.
“We can’t fix it,” he said. “If fixable at all, only the locals will manage that in their own time, and our interventions risk being counterproductive.”