America seems trapped in an exploding Middle East minefield.
Revolts are breaking out amid the choke points of world commerce. Shiite populations are now restive in the Gulf monarchies. Not far away, Iran’s youth are sick and tired of the country’s seventh-century theocracy. Astride the Suez Canal, Egyptian demonstrators just threw out the Mubarak regime. On the coast of the southern Mediterranean, Tunisia and Libya are in upheaval, just a few hundred miles from Europe.
The politics of rebellion are often bewildering. Theocrats in Iran, kings in the Gulf states and Jordan, dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, and thugs in Libya are all gone or threatened. Some, such as Mubarak, were often pro-American. Others, such as Libya’s Qaddafi, hate the United States. Calls for reform now come from a bewildering menu of protestors: Muslim extremists, secular pro-Western liberals, hard-core terrorists, and everyday people who just want a better life.
Strategic concerns frame almost every one of these upheavals. Israel may soon have enemies on all of its borders. Iran is close to getting a nuclear weapon. All the unrest reminds us that today’s supposed friend is tomorrow’s possible enemy — with no certainty about who will end up with a deposed strongman’s arsenal of weapons.
Proximity to Europe means millions of possible refugees could head north and westward. America either has military relations with or gives foreign aid to Egypt, Jordan, and the West Bank (and sometimes does both). Over the last decade, terrorists who have been caught in the United States plotting our destruction came almost exclusively from the restive Middle East.
Tens of thousands of American troops are dispersed throughout Iraq and the Gulf region. Oil-starved China has a hungry eye on these resource-rich, unstable states. More than half of the world’s daily supply of exported petroleum is shipped from the Middle East.
There are only a few constants in this welter of unrest. The common enemy is the autocracy that has impoverished and terrorized Middle Eastern populations for decades. Only a few governments in the general region that have democratic and legitimate governments — Israel and, to a much lesser degree, Turkey and Iraq — have escaped the most recent troubles.
What has been the American response to these crises? In a word, confused.