Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The theater widens

Austin Bay links to Mark Steyn and Christopher Hitchens' view of events sweeping across the Middle East: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and possibly Syria. It is a reminder of why Iraq was commanded through CENTCOM. During the days when the overt action was centered on Iraq, it was easy to forget that it was one battlefield within a theater. Now the theater itself has come to the fore and the atmosphere is one of 'breakout and pursuit'.

The breakout creates a new set of opportunities and problems. These can be described as 'emergent phenomenon',  -- the result of interactions between individual elements within the Middle East and Southwest Asian theater that are now bouncing off each other. Worse -- or more exciting -- is that these recent developments now have linkages into Europe and Russia. France and the EU, for example, are getting engaged in Lebanon while going in the other direction, Russia has declared interest in supplying technology to Iran. Just as it was important to recall that Iraq was part of the Middle East theater, the Middle East itself is part of action spanning the globe. In retrospect, events as disparate as the dismantling of of the Libyan nuclear program and the exposure of the AQ Khan atomic weapons mart played their part in leading up to current developments. As historical drama the GWOT's scope is staggering and may prove to be bigger in certain respects than that old yardstick, the Second World War.

 'Militant' groups have often attempted to stabilize the front whenever events threatened to take a direction which they could not control. This usually took the form of a spoiling terrorist attack to re-mire things in blood, chaos and hatred as often happened during negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. It would not be surprising if the terror masters fell back on this old repertoire by staging attacks directed not only at Middle Eastern targets but at the United States to throw back the threatening psychological wave. The problem is that there is no longer any widespread confidence, even in the places like Lebanon, that terror tactics will prevail. To that extent even the most heinous attacks, like the carbomb which recently killed more than 100 in Iraq, have lost their bite. Psychologically speaking, the greatest contribution of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns is that they have shattered terrorism's myth of invincibility. The terrorists embarked on a maximum effort to dislodge the US from Iraq, employing every weapon of violence, political maneuver and propaganda they could muster and came up much the worse for wear. This lesson has not been lost to public perception and has emboldened dissidents all across the region.

The real challenge will be to find ways to respond to the campaign of spoiling terror which may be forthcoming. Unlike Iraq, where US forces can respond directly to challenge, the problem will be the ability of the US to affect events over the wider region in clandestine or indirect ways. Tempo is America's friend, but the enemy is even now looking for a place to stem the rot.