Why does Belgium live in such a peaceful neighborhood? By way of contrast, why are almost all the nations in the Greater Middle East in turmoil ? Why do some regions find themselves at peace and other regions find themselves sucked into one war after another ?
From the fall of Burgundian Dukedom in the 1470s until the end of the Second World War in 1945, Belgium and its neighbors scarcely enjoyed two or three successive decades of without some sort of war. A disproportionate number of the bloodiest and most important battles in European history were either fought on Belgium soil or nearby. To name just a few of the better known battles fought in and around what is now the Kingdom of Belgium; there was Nancy (1477), Antwerp (1576), Rocroi (1643), Ramilles (1706),Oudenarde (1708), Fontenoy (1745), Waterloo (1815) Sedan (1870 ) Antwerp (1914) Ypres (1917) Sedan (1940) Dunkirk (1940) Arnhem (1944) The Bulge (1944). But since 1945 - nothing.
Fans of the European Union like to claim that Europe's "ever closer union" is the principal cause of this happy situation, but a military historian might see things differently. Before 1945, no major power in Europe was able to keep the peace in a way acceptable to all the other major military powers. But since 1945, the US has been able to both defend Western Europe against invasion, and to prevent Western Europeans from going to war with each other .
General Pug Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, famously said the organization's purpose was "Keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." NATO has succeeded at all these tasks. The Russians are out, are now more interested in Eurasian affairs than they are in marching to the English Channel or to Gibraltar. The Germans are not just peaceful; they are, perhaps too peaceful. By Ismay's standard, NATO has been a fantastic success, and the lack of bloodshed in and around Belgium is the proof of that success.
In other regions, America's role has been less successful. In December 1978, President Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said, "An Arc of Crisis stretches along the shores of the Indian Ocean, with fragile social and political structures in a region of vital importance to us threatened with fragmentation." He seems mainly to have been thinking of Iran, where the revolution that overthrew the Shah was beginning, and of Ethiopia, where the Mengitsu regime and its Cuban military supporters were busy wiping out the last vestiges of resistance to their rule.
In his 1997 book "The Grand Chessboard," Brzezinski described the same area, sometimes called "The Greater Middle East" as; "The global zone of percolating violence." He also wrote: "… in the absence of a single genuinely powerful Islamic state, a challenge from Islamic fundamentalism would lack a geopolitical core and would thus be more likely to express itself through diffuse violence." As we saw on 9/11, diffuse violence can be pretty violent.
The role of religion and culture -- sometimes called "civilization" -- plays a part in sustaining region-wide political violence. The generalized lack of economic progress and the large number of unemployed and unemployable angry young men help to keep the turmoil going. Technology, especially communications technology, such as the internet and satellite television, plays a role too.
However it is geography that determines the spread of the turmoil and where it reaches its limits.
For five hundred years Belgium and its region were at the center of three crucial economic phenomena, which existed only because of the geography involved. These were, first, the wool trade, which brought raw materials from Britain and Spain and transformed the raw wool into expensive, highly desirable cloth. Second, the region was the center of the most highly developed and productive agricultural economy in Europe. And third, it was part of the Anglo-Dutch shipping universe that connected the region to the entire world. These factors, combined with local military weakness, made Belgium and its neighborhood a prize worth fighting for.
Today, the center of what Brzezinski called the "Arc of Crisis," the Persian Gulf, is both militarily weak and rich in the sense that the local governments control a critical part of global oil production. These nations, especially the UAE, are connected to the global economy through their role as air transport and shipping hubs. They have ambitions to become world-class places to do business, while internationalization has weaken local national and tribal identities. The best evidence for this is the ongoing difficulty the UAE has in recruiting and retaining their citizens for the UAE armed forces. The Emirates may have lots of modern equipment, but how many trained men do they have who are ready to use it? Men will fight and die for their nations or their tribes, but not for their supermarkets or for their duty free stores. Like Belgium in the 15-20th centuries, the combination of riches, cosmopolitanism and weakness must look irresistible to regional predators.
The United States plays a vital role in keeping the core nations on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf independent and free to sell their oil to the world. In 1991, the Gulf Arabs saw how effective American protection was when US troops forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. They also observed Washington's weakness when, after that battle, Saddam was allowed to remain in power, scheming for revenge.
Today US power does not look so awesome; the long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll. On a tactical and operational level, US military power cannot be beaten, but by keeping wars going year after year, US political resolve has been weakened. America's enemies have never faced the full strength of its military firepower: the local predatory powers have taken note.
Writing in the Beirut Daily Star, Michael Young asked, " What are America's priorities in the Middle East?" No one knows. If it is containing Iran, then Obama's accelerated drawdown in Iraq makes little sense; if it is protecting America's access to oil, then the President has done a terrible job of managing the relationship with Saudi Arabia; if it is fighting terrorists, why did Obama pursue a nation-building project in Afghanistan, which he then abandoned a year later after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated. And if it is realizing Arab Israeli peace, Obama has done far less than Bush, who could have done far more."
Even if one agrees with Young's analysis, and his assumption of a drawdown in Iraq looks questionable, America is by no means an insignificant or powerless actor in the Middle East. US Naval and Air Forces will be present, in and around the Persian Gulf, for decades to come.
There is nothing in the Middle East to match NATO; its closest equivalent, the "Gulf Cooperation Council," is a club made of Arab monarchies who enjoy varying degrees of stability and legitimacy. For these Kings and Emirs, Ismay's formula might read "Keep the Iranians out, the Americans in and the Shi'ites down." This may not sound very humanitarian, but as long as Iran remains a threat, it will -- and should -- be the basis for America's relationship with the Gulf Arabs.
The Kings and Emirs know that they live in an area of "Vital importance" to the US and the West. They also possibly think that changing US administrations always seem, in their view, either too weak or too strong. American policy seems to lack consistency, its priorities not only change from administration to administration, but sometimes even from month to month -- and for reasons Arab governments find impossible to understand
The history of NATO provides an noteworthy lesson for those trying to analyze US Middle East policy: as in the Middle East, successive administrations in Europe seem always to have seen as too weak or too strong. NATO's European members were never satisfied with US policy, and ceaselessly complained about it in every conceivable forum, just as today's Middle Easterners do. It took decades for Europeans to accept, even grumblingly, that it was American NATO policy, even with all its inexplicable ups and downs, effectively kept the peace.
The Greater Middle East is a rough neighborhood and will remain so whether or not the US adopts a policy of strength or one of weakness. Leaders in Washington and in the Arab part of the Gulf might find it useful to tone down their rhetoric and accept that the nature of local politics and geography have combined to give American military power a essential long-term role stabilizing the region .