In the 'arc of crisis' the U.S. can't be allowed to fail

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 13, 2009

In the streets of Tehran, young Iranians shout "Death to the Dictator" instead of "Death to America." Across the border, Iraqis worry that new violence after months of relative calm will undermine the political process they adopted under U.S. pressure. But they also voice renewed determination to repel the sadists and killers who once dominated their land.

In Pakistan, a weak and unsavory civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, seems with U.S. help to be prodding his duplicitous military to abandon its complicity with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and fight them as an existential threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

None of these developments is a cause for victory celebrations. They are still tentative. But when measured against the conventional wisdom of a few years ago about the likely results of foreign intervention in a region that has been locked in turmoil and despotism for centuries, these events represent at least temporary progress.

They help underline President Obama's defense of his Afghan policy in his Nobel Peace Prize speech as a watershed event. In four decades -- a blink of history's eye -- Americans have gone from the national certitude that there should be no U.S. combat troops stationed in what was once called the "arc of crisis" -- the view of the expert community (and my own) when I lived and worked in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in the 1970s -- to broadly accepting the notion that it is possible to devise an optimal U.S. military presence there. Obama's aides have even sold the narrative that through disciplined presidential quizzing of his own policymakers, we can arrive at the answer to whether 20,000, 40,000 or some other number of new troops will bring success in Afghanistan.

It was once certain that empires came to die in the belt of mostly impoverished, mostly Islamic lands stretching from North Africa into Central Asia. Back then, we believed that nothing could be worse than Western military intervention in this zone of zealotry. Neither the oil embargo of 1973 nor the 1979 Iranian revolution and seizure of U.S. diplomats as hostages provoked decisions to put American boots on the ground to prevent what would clearly come next. Some policymakers advocated the atavistic step of grabbing the oil fields or bombing Tehran, but they lost the argument.

Today we are told by no less than a presidential Nobel laureate that there are in fact worse things than waging war in this region and we must fight in even the most unpromising circumstances to prevent them. History suggests that President Obama is right in principle but will see much go wrong in practice.

This proved true of the nonintervention policy of the past as well as the recent U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. We wind up without control of the oil fields, which have created ruinous transfers of oceans of money to corrupt Middle East regimes and terrorist organizations and with Iran seeking a nuclear weapon that will cause a regionwide atomic arms race -- while America bears the burden of two wars that may serve as laboratories for future conflicts.

The chain of decisions that led to this situation stretches back to 1967, when British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and Israel's conquest of Arab territories propelled the United States into an explosive vacuum for which it was ill prepared. Only by understanding how all administrations since 1967 -- not just the calamitous George W. Bush presidency -- share responsibility for the current mix of progress and peril can we work our way out of the looming quagmire in Afghanistan and the region at large.

The United States would benefit from an independent, broad-ranging examination of its interests and policies in the Greater Middle East undertaken by a presidential commission of former officials and academics. (The current Chilcot inquiry in Britain into decision-making on Iraq would be a mini-model of what I am proposing.) It would at least remind us that history does not march in a straight predictable line. It zigs and zags, causing even mighty empires to fall when they overextend themselves.

In Oslo and earlier this month at West Point, Obama sketched the stakes of the U.S. war on fanaticism centered now in Afghanistan. He is challenging the world to assess the global consequences of permitting the United States to fail there without significant help. In the end, the international community should decide that the United States is too big -- and too important to global stability -- to fail.

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