Caught in the Middle East Minefield

Victor Davis Hanson

3/3/2011 12:01:00 AM - Victor Davis Hanson

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 mad-hatter thugs in Libya are all gone or threatened. Some, like Mubarak, were often pro-American. Others, like Libya's Gaddafi, 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 certainly 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 (and sometimes both) Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank. 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 the world's daily supply of exported petroleum is shipped from the Middle East.

There are only a few constants in the maze of unrest. The common enemy is autocracy that has impoverished and terrorized Middle East populations for decades. Only a few governments in the general region that have consensual and legitimate governments -- Israel and, to a much lesser degree, Turkey and Iraq -- have escaped the most recent unrest.

What has been the American response to these crises? In a word -- confused.

President Obama assured a savage Iranian theocracy in 2009 that we would not meddle in its internal affairs, amid apologies for our supposed sins more than a half-century ago during the height of the Cold War. In response, Iranian leaders brutally and unapologetically put down popular unrest.

The Obama administration at first announced that Hosni Mubarak was not, and then was, a dictator. It then declared, in temporizing Jimmy Carter fashion, that he should have left yesterday, now, soon or in the fall. The Muslim Brotherhood was said to be variously suspect, not violent, a needed player in the transition -- or apparently all that and more. Finally, we just shut up and assumed that the military coup that threw out Mubarak, suspended the constitution and quieted the demonstrators would transition to consensual government -- without installing another military strongman or allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to hijack the Egyptian revolution Iranian-style.

For too long, Obama stayed quiet as Muammar Gaddafi slaughtered Libyans with tanks and artillery. A cynic might have concluded from Obama's weak, "make no mistake about it" sermons that if a ruthless regime kills its own, hates America and bars the press, the United States will appear indifferent. In contrast, if the strongman is more pro-American, allows protests, and lets in the BBC and CNN, then he sort of has earned our rebuke.

In other words, until only recently this administration did not have a consistent policy of promoting nonviolent evolution to constitutional and secular government across the Middle East. Cannot we oppose Iranian theocracy or Libyan thuggery with the same zeal that we showed in finally castigating the Mubarak dictatorship?

Meanwhile, as much of the world's oil supply teeters on the brink, the Obama administration has stopped new drilling for seven years in the eastern Gulf of Mexico; halted further oil and gas exploration in many regions of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming; and will not reconsider drilling in small but petroleum-rich areas of Alaska. Instead, we hear the same tired Van Jones-like fantasies about wind and solar power as gasoline prices approach $4 a gallon in recessionary times -- with nightmarish scenarios of twice that price if the Persian Gulf explodes in further unrest.

It is past time for the Obama administration to speak in one voice -- prudentially, consistently and forcefully -- on behalf of nonviolent transition to secular constitutional government in the Middle East. Meanwhile, to preserve our autonomy and options, America in the short term needs to stop borrowing money and to drill like crazy for oil and natural gas, as we fast-track coal and nuclear power.

Right now anything less is near-criminal negligence.