Whatever planet Earth may find in short supply in 2010, violence and misrule will remain abundant, from the most-recent round of Muslim-vs.-Christian massacres in Nigeria to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez's delight in unleashing his thugs on students marching for freedom.
But no region — not even sub-Saharan Africa — competes with the greater Middle East when it comes to wanton savagery, thwarted opportunities and the danger posed to innocent populations around the world. With fanatical terrorists of unprecedented brutality, Islamist extremists pursuing nuclear weapons, rogue regimes, disintegrating states and threats of genocide against Israel, the lands of heat and dust between the Nile and the Indus form a realm of deadly failure that will haunt the civilized world throughout our lifetimes.
A survey of the region's key countries — and problems — doesn't offer much good news for the Obama Administration's naive foreign policy efforts:
LEBANON: This isn't a country — it's a temporary stand-off. Recently, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafik, was assassinated by Syria, had to make a humbling visit to Damascus. Syria's decades-long penetration of the government in Beirut and various Lebanese factions (not least, its backing of the Hezbollah terror organization) has kept Beirut dependent on Damascus to break the political gridlock in parliament. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has been rearming mightily in the wake of its 2006 war with Israel. A new war would devastate much of Lebanon — if internal strife doesn’t do it first.
EGYPT: A US client long counted among the most stable states in the Middle East, Egypt faces a potential succession crisis as octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak, who's ruled the country for almost three decades, grooms his singularly unimpressive son, Gamal, to take over upon his death. The government and armed forces are more factionalized than they seem to outsiders, Islamist movements have proven ineradicable, and violence against Egypt's minority Christians is on the rise again.
Unlike many other Arab populations, Egyptians have a strong national identity. There's no danger of Egypt breaking into pieces. But no one knows for certain which way this crucial state may tilt when the elder Mubarak makes his exit. Will there be a smooth, corporatist transition from one authoritarian regime to another? Will contenders for power play the populist anti-Israeli card? Will the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as a power broker? Will pogroms and unrest rock the country, leading to a military coup? We don't know — because the Egyptians don't know.
TURKEY: Long in NATO, but denied membership in the European Union, Turkey has grappled with an identity crisis. Increasingly, its political bosses back an Islamic identity. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) soft-peddles its religious agenda when dealing with the West, but has been methodically dismantling the secular constitution left behind by Kemal Ataturk — who rescued Turkey from oblivion 90 years ago. Despite the military's hobbling by clever AKP tactics in Ankara, the collective of generals remains a wild card. With the AKP drawing its strength from urban slums and the countryside, more cosmopolitan Turkish voters can't reverse the Islamic tide. Will the military move to preserve the legacy of Ataturk? Unlikely. But if the generals did move, the Obama administration would back the Islamists.
Meanwhile, Turkey's current leaders are dragging the country toward the Middle East and away from the West.
SYRIA: The neighborhood's in such awful shape that this police state's beginning to look like a success story. It's internally tranquil, with a budding economy and even a growing tourist trade. On the other hand, the Assad family's government backs terrorism, harbors remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, still hopes for Israel's destruction — and wouldn't mind having nukes, if it could figure out how to get them. When Damascus looks like a beacon, it's getting awfully dark in the Middle East.
ISRAEL: Civilization's last hope in the region, Israel remains the target of international leftists dreaming of another, more-thorough Holocaust. The "peace process" will continue to fail. Arabs need Israel to blame for their failures. And President Obama empowered the worst Arab elements with his Cairo speech, which convinced the dead-enders there’s no need to compromise with Israel — that the US would shift its support to the Arab cause. That Cairo speech may prove to have been the most-destructive address in the history of American foreign policy.
IRAQ: Can't say we didn't try. After years of serious progress toward a national compromise, Shia political agents close to Iran recently banned over 500 influential Sunni candidates from standing in Iraq's upcoming elections. Reconciliation has come to a screeching halt. The Shia are smug, the Sunnis feel betrayed, and the Kurds are still denied title to the traditionally Kurdish city of Kirkuk. Every faction's fighting for a greater share of oil revenues. And the Obama administration's AWOL (this was Bush's war — we wouldn't want a positive outcome).
This will be a crucial year. If upcoming elections fail to satisfy significant portions of the population, Iraq's gears could go into reverse. There's still hope that the Baghdad government will come to its senses — but the old blood feuds and thirst for vengeance go deeper than we thought.
Oh, and who's behind the Iranian move to ban the Sunni candidates? Ahmed Chalabi, the man who convinced the Bush administration that we'd be welcomed with rose petals.
SAUDI ARABIA: Its two main exports are oil and fanaticism. Saudi funding supports a global effort to drive Muslims into the fold of its severe Wahhabi cult — and to prevent Muslims (including those in the US) from integrating into local societies. The Saudis care nothing for the fate or suffering of fellow Muslims (check out the Palestinians). They care only for their repressive version of Islam. The birthplace of Bin Laden, Saudi Arabia's differences with his terror organization are over strategy and tactics, not over their mutual goal of forcing extremist Islam on all of humanity.
IRAN: Racing to acquire nuclear weapons, delighting in the prospect of a cataclysmic war that would lead to the "return of the hidden imam," beating the hell out of its own people in the streets, murdering members of the intelligentsia, and explicit in its vows to destroy Israel, the government of Iran continues to be protected by China and Russia. There will be no meaningful sanctions. Over the next few years, we'll see a nuclear test in the southeastern desert region of Baluchistan.
Will Israel strike first? Perhaps. Would the US? Not under this administration. The best hope is for a miracle that leads to a popular overthrow of the current maddened regime. But strategy can't be based upon the expectation of miracles.
YEMEN: It's Saudi Arabia without oil, running water or literacy. Perhaps the most-backward country in this stubbornly backward region, Yemen has harbored terrorists for years (we really didn't want to know). Its government cannot control its territory, its tribes are so fanatical they alarm the Saudis (who have had to fight them), and Iran backs the Shiite minority in its revolt against the state. Throw in Yemen’s strategic position astride the world's most-sensitive oil-shipping routes, and this pretense of a country looks far more important than Afghanistan.
DUBAI: The late Michael Jackson's flirtation with this high-rise bazaar apparently couldn't rescue an economy built on sand. Hyped as the model city of the future and a surefire investment, Dubai's broke and surviving — barely — on handouts from Abu Dhabi. The bookkeeping's suspect, but this tiny city-state's at least $70 billion in the red — probably much more. It's got the world's tallest building and the world's highest per capita debt. This is the Arab world's "success story."
AFGHANISTAN: We're there, and we don't know why. We know why we went in 2001, but al Qaeda's long gone. Initially, we were welcomed. Now, the more troops we send, the stronger the Taliban becomes. We're tied to a corrupt, inept government despised by the people. Afghans won’t fight for that government, but they'll give their lives for the Taliban. And we're determined to turn the place into Disney World.
Should we just leave? No. Afghanistan provides a crucial base for striking the terrorists across the border in Pakistan. But a reduced presence and a willingness to back sympathetic Afghan tribes offers far more return on our investment of blood and treasure than trying to turn Islamist fanatics into third-rate Americans. In a war-torn tribal society, you have to pick your tribes.
Afghanistan is worthless in itself. Instead of concentrating on killing our enemies, we’re buying worthless real estate with American blood.
PAKISTAN: 180 million anti-American Muslims, thanks to generations of politicians who took American aid while playing the anti-American card with their constituents. The government won't crack down on the Taliban factions it's preserving for a reconquest of Afghanistan after we exit. It sponsors terror attacks against India, then leaves it to us to calm India down. Promised another $7.5 billion in aid, Pakistan's response has been not only to bite the hand that feeds it, but to gnaw it to a bloody pulp. And, in an act of strategic folly, we've left our troops in Afghanistan dependent upon a single supply line that runs for over a thousand miles through Pakistan.
And the Pakistani media, with the government's blessing, blames us when the Taliban bomb a marketplace. Isn't it about time we got a grip? Around Pakistan's throat?
But what about those nukes? What if they get mad at us and hand them over to terrorists? They won't. But if we're worried about the nukes, plan to destroy them — or leave that job up to India. Leaving the greatest power in history at the mercy of the impossibly corrupt regime in Pakistan guarantees that our troops lives are wasted next door in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan isn't our problem. Pakistan's the problem. And India's the future.