Back in 1986, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinksi (under President Carter) published a primer on regional strategies between the United States and the Soviet Union, called "Game Plan". In many ways the book was already out of date by the time it was published (for instance, the book took no notice of the December 1983 Navy mutiny incident at Murmansk), especially as it was unable to understand the underlying brilliance of Reagan's economic and military strategies, but it did at least present the global contest between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. in simple terms, with clear geospatial references that made clear why certain locations were important stress points. With the many changes in the past 18 years, as well as the clear victories over the forces and ideology of the Warsaw Pact, it bodes well to re-examine that global map, and to focus on the new global map and attendant areas of interest.
Brzezinski's map focused on the Eurasian continent as the main field of conflict between the USSR and America. Brzezinski correctly understood that it would be difficult for the USSR to maintain harassment of nations friendly to the United States in the South American continent, especially Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mexico, but failed to realize that the condition in Eastern Europe were quite different. Essentially, Soviet attempts to destabilize U.S. support in Latin America was a gun aimed at America's foot, while U.S. support for dissidents in Poland and Russia was a gun aimed at Communism's heart. This is important to understand, because the same difference in strategies exists today.
The old men in Europe rage at George W. Bush, among other reasons, because America has made Europe irrelevant. The continent of Kings and so much history has lost the position and influence they depended upon for more than half a millennium; just as Spain and France lost their power with their empires, so now do Germany and Russia find that the world has passed them by; the best minds are not European, nor the best products, nor the best governments, nor the best ideals. Except for England, who shines more brightly now in the person of Tony Blair than she has since Churchill, the beacons of leadership are all but one moved now to the Pacific Rim and Ocean, and America, to the astonishment of so many, remains captain at the helm. Look to economic news, to military events of significance, to the focus of diplomatic efforts, and one constantly finds two themes: Pacific countries like China, the Koreas, Japan, and so on, and events controlled or directed by the United States. The one remaining other place where we must keep our focus sharp, is the Middle East.
As I have noted before, most Americans (indeed, most people, period) have little knowledge of Arab History. They have vague notions about Islam and the Crusades, about Oil and OPEC, about various terrorist groups, about the Palestinians and Israel, and of course the constant drumbeat that whatever is wrong with the Middle East, should be laid at the feet of the American government/President. Far too many have never studied the Ottoman Empire, or the colonial policies of France, Germany, and England. Far too many people watch "Ghandi", and forget that he was successful, in some good measure because the British government was inclined to grant independence to India if they could do so with stability, while France sent troops to Syria and Lebanon to put down rebellion and protests, peaceful as well as militant. The same Wahhabi factions in Islam which are causing the largest headaches now, rose in opposition to European oppression or artificially-imposed borders, long before the United States had any presence in the region. Also, it is not commonly rcognized, that the infrastructure which allowed most OPEC nations to modernize, came as a direct result of contracts with Western petroleum companies, especially American companies. Many liberals think it unseemly, that Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, the U.A.E., Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Iran, to name the major players from 1945 to 1975, had closer ties to American enginerring and petroleum companies than with any government, but this was simply the most functional arrangements, and one which OPEC found to its liking - for one thing, it allowed the Arabs to deal directly with the people who impacted their countries the most directly, without necessarily forcing a political stance.
Some people like to believe that the United States provoked the instability of the region, by supporting Israel, but that is not true, historically. Israel remains a thorn for the Arab countries, for a number of reasons, but there was generally a good degree of certainty through the 1970s. Then, things changed through a series of events which the United States did not cause. To be blunt, the Soviet Union committed a number of strategic blunders, and most of what has happened in the poast generation has been more aftershock of those actions, than any deliberate course of action.
It must be understood at this point, that the U.S.S.R. considered terrorism a valid measn of destabilizing regimes. Many people do not realize that Soviet tactics often included key assassinations and random events of violence, as precursors to an invasion, in order to decapitate leaders and damage confidence in the government. This what they did in Vietnam, in Germany, and in many South American countries. At least a dozen major Middle Wastern terrorist groups have ties to Soviet sponsors, including the Black September orgnization, the Abu Nidal organization, and early factions of the PLO. This is also why so many terrorist groups found support and supplies through Iraq; the Bathist regime was a solid Soviet client all the way up to the day the Berlin Wall fell. Syria and Algeria also supported terrorists through their Soviet connections, though it is difficult at times to know whether it was the Soviets using the Arabs to build anti-U.S. terrorist groups, or the Arabs using the Soviets to build anti-Western terrorist groups.
1979 was a critical year for the Middle East. First, President Anwar Sadat, who hated the Soviets and dearly loved the dream of true independence for Egypt, sought out the Israelis for a peace treaty. It was not President Carter who deserves trhe most credit for the accord, but Sadat and Begin, who spent 16 months hammering out the terms to end the most divisive split in Arab-Jew relations. Ironically, Sadat would be assassinated in 1981 by Wahhabiists, specifically for the peace treaty, in the same year that saw attempts on the life of the Pope and President Reagan. At least 2 of the 3 attempts have some kind of Soviet connection in method and supply. Later in 1979, Secular dictator Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq, and immediately began a purge of Shiite Muslims and Kurds. In Iran, France assisted in the return of outlaw Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Teheran, which signalled the beginning of the end of the Shah's reign there, and the rise of a radical militant Shiite theocracy. At the end of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, which to the Arabs signalled a secular invasion of their belief world, provoking a reaction which in part fed desire for Jihad by the radical Islamists.
The general results of these salient events was the emergence of an Arab-Israeli dialogue, opposed by radical Islamists who used the Palestinian position to create disruption and violence through the instigation of the 'Intifada', various efforts to deal with the weakening Soviets to advantageous terms, while at the same time playing having both sides of the pro-West/anti-West alliances, leading to situations (especially in Saudi Arabia) where a private agreement may be made in direct contradiction to public statements, while the United States sought to rearrange its priorities to protect Israel and maintain some sense of order in the region, while not advancing regimes hostile to U.S. interests. This led to a number of situations where the United States broke old alliances with nations like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon (to address U.S. demands for a moral foreign policy), and European mercenary corporations rushed in to fill the void. It also led to a more pro-active American military presence, willing to protect Iraq from Iran in the first years of their border war, to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf, and to provide intelligence in the Israeli raid on the Osirak reactor. The U.S. also began to maintain, more or less permanently, a sea and air presence in the South Mediterranean, which Libya learned to its cost.
By the end of Reagan's second term, two significant changes in the Middle East had become apparent: The Soviet Union was no longer in position to oppose U.S. intentions in the Middle East, but anti-Western proxy actions were harassing business and government intentions there, especially in Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq. When Iraq was foolish enough to invade Kuwait, the United States seized on this to not only send a military message, but also to advance diplomatic initiatives. The success and failure of these initiativs displayed the true nature of the Arabs' intentions towards the United States, and despite the Conventional Wisdom, these intentions were far from uniform or united.
To be blunt, President Clinton lacked the foresight or fortitude to pursue some promising opportunities in the Middle East. As a result, the United States not only failed to take advantage of some early chances in the region, but sent the worst sort of message in the Islamic context; weakness and decadence. As a result, a number of Arab nations held to their religious factions, believing they could not rely on the United States for protection of their interests and values. This also allowed the more brutal of these regimes to plot against the United States, which fed the rise Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Al-Jihad, and of course Al Qaeda. I need to note briefly, however, that the variety of names and networks demonstrates that lack of unity and purpose I mentioned; it's greatly annoying to recognize that a U.S.-Arab initiative in 1994 or 1995 could have swept the region clean of this menace in large part. Also, the removal of HUMINT agents from the region made it impossible for later operations to gain the necessary foundational steps. When George W. Bush came into office in 2001, he was ill-equipped to deal immediately with the mess left to him.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were, to be blunt, brutal for the armies who stood in the way of the Americans, and the cost of U.S. life has not been a casual consideration. But through the efforts of the military, the United States now owns its best opportunity in at least two centuries, to stabilize the entire region. This is not, I must caution, a matter of gaining American advantages in price or supply of oil, or of simply building U.S.-friendly governments. Under no circumstances can we predict how a free government in the Middle East will conduct its trade and diplomacy, and any functional Arab government will have a valid Islamic culture, which is somewhat foreign to us by any definition. But the United States, while it has made errors in history, has the cleanest hands of any nation able to craft a coalition of free Arab governments. And we are already seeing an intriguing variety of reactions, from countries hustling to make a deal with us, to regimes facing strident demands from their own people for free elections.
The risks are great. We will see instability in the region for a long time to come, as those in power now resist the movement of Democracy. And we may well see our military called up to come to the aid of a revolution against one of more of the tyrannic despots who face their own people down. But the Arab world presents the best chance for a stable coalition of free nations that it has ever known, and with victory in the region on economic, democratic, and egalitarian terms, the United States may well establish its leadership for the next century over its would-be rivals in the Pacific, by prudent and visionary actions taken in another sea and ocean completely.