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Libya's migrants are drowning...and so is U.S. Mideast policy

America's Middle East foreign policy has helped make the region a mess. What do we do now?

The 2016 candidates for the White House are off and running, and to say that it's been underwhelming would be an overstatement. On the Republican side, it feels like the same 8 or 9 candidates that we had at this point in 2011, just with different names attached. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is running against herself...and I'm not sure that she's winning (although the wretched Maureen Dowd may drive a sympathy vote). The candidates' policy views seem largely driven by consultants and focus groups (the exception may be Rand Paul...proving it's possible to be unpredictable and bad!). No wonder that we're fascinated by what looked like a police-stick-up-video of Hillary's secret Chipotle run.

I'm wondering if it's even possible over the next 19 months for someone from either party to say something new and intelligent about the Middle East. Or even acknowledge the obvious -- that our frequently bomb-driven blunders over the last six decades have helped an already, dangerous unstable part of the planet get even more dangerous, and more more deadly. What's happening right now in the Mediterranean is immoral and unconscionable:

ROME — Hundreds of people were feared dead on Sunday after a ship overcrowded with migrants capsized in the Mediterranean, as the authorities described a grisly scene of bodies floating and sinking in the warm waters, with the majority of the dead apparently trapped in the ship at the bottom of the sea.

The fatal shipwreck may prove to be the Mediterranean's deadliest disaster ever and is only the latest tragedy in Europe's migration crisis. Warmer spring weather has unleashed a torrent of smuggler boats, mostly from Libya, bearing migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, often fleeing war and poverty for a foothold in Europe.

Death at sea has become a grimly common occurrence: Even before this weekend's sinking, humanitarian groups estimated that 900 migrants had already died this year, compared with 90 during the same period a year ago. That figure could rise sharply, as officials estimate that 700 more people may have drowned in the weekend disaster.

This story kind of sneaked up on America -- I guess it happened somewhere between Scott Walker crashing a wedding and the new "Fantastic Four" trailer. But it's a big deal -- a death toll approaching 10 times as many people who were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, as we remember today's 20th anniversary. As usual, Pope Francis is on it, telling Sunday worshippers: ""They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life." Francis urged the world to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Good luck with that.

In the short-term, it's Europe -- including Libya's closest European neighbor, Italy -- that deserve condemnation for knuckling under to anti-immigrant pressure and failing to protect the migrants, who are fleeing war and famine in a desperate and increasing unsuccessful bid just to stay alive. But in the long run it was NATO -- with the United States playing a leadership role, as usual -- that aggressively intervened to get rid of one genocidal dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, without any kind of strategy for dealing with the inevitable chaos that came once Gadhafi was gone.

Sound familiar? Although there are some big differences between what happened in Libya and what happened in Iraq -- Libya was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, a stronger argument for some type of intervention -- there are also powerful similarities. Most importantly, neither operation came with serious planning for the consequences of war, and the results have been brutal. In Iraq, there's increasing evidence that America's determination to disband Saddam's Arny gave rise to ISIS:

Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.

They have brought to the organization the military expertise and some of the agendas of the former Baathists, as well as the smuggling networks developed to avoid sanctions in the 1990s and which now facilitate the Islamic State's illicit oil trading.

Of course, it was terrorists linked to ISIS who just filmed and released a video of the brutal slaughter of Ethiopian Christians -- on the shores of Libya, not so far from where migrants are drowning. When and how does this cycle stop?

One thing is clear: The U.S. strategy of dropping bombs from flying death robots and trying decide who are the least objectionable thugs in each country to support isn't working, and so it's hard not to make the case that we're only making the region's bloodshed even worse. The candidates won't tell you that -- indeed some like South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, who said today it's 91 percent likely he enters the race, seem to be actively scoping out new targets for warmaking.

Right now, America's default position in the region is to send over even more implements of death:

WASHINGTON — To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin's F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.

As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.

That has got to stop.

In fairness, no one in or out of American politics has an answer for the Middle East or the related hot spots from Africa to South Asia. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to situations as diverse as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Yemen, to name a few. It's sad but almost not surprising that America backed the Arab Spring in some places while supporting the murderous despots in Bahrain against the Arab Spring, or that it fights with Iran's allies in Iraq and supports the Saudis trying to kill Iran's allies in Yemen.

But there are much bigger, much better policy choices that can pursued by President Obama now and by his successor in 2017. The first, of course, is to work like heck for a real peace deal for a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That means an agreement that manages to recognize Israel's right to exist while offering full human rights, including a real homeland, to the people of Palestine. That won't stuff all of the Middle East's demons back into Pandora's box, but it will remove the biggest obstacle to a wider peace.

The second is to continue the trend that's already underway -- to eliminate American dependence on the region for any of our energy needs. For more than a half-century, too much of the foreign policy both of America and our allies has been driven by how to extract the most oil from underneath the Middle East, as opposed to how to extract the most good for the everyday people who live there, and for the greatest goal of world peace. Oil needs to be separated from the equation, period.

Or, we can stay the present course of trying to scoop up human beings from the surface of the sea just before they drown. I don't believe that path is either moral...or sustainable. To paraphrase Roy Scheider in "Jaws," I think we're going to need a bigger boat.

Blogger's note: Corrected from original.