Anarchy and directionless armed conflict benefits those who are up to no good. Show me a riot, and I'll point out the looters. Find a deadlocked election, and I'll find you some stuffed ballot boxes.
And when it comes to the Middle East, when civil unrest in the "Arab Street" starts spreading like a contagion throughout the entire region, it often open doors of opportunity for nefarious nations or factions -- in this case, Iran.
By condemning the West's intervention in Libya, the Iranians have drawn mostly diplomatic scorn from nearby Arab nations. (Iran isn't Arab, of course.) But as the Libyan situation gets messier and protracted -- as these ventures almost always do -- then the frustration of Arabs can present an opportunity to the most notorious opportunist in the region. Especially when radical Islamist factions in the Middle East and North Africa can potentially be exploited to further roil the waters.
The leaders of the nations under assault in recent weeks and months have been dictators. Should they all go? Of course. But it's also true that both Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and especially Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have been, on the grand geopolitical stage, stabilizing forces in the region. By design or chance, that has effectively made them allies of the world's unwilling constabulary nations, most notably America.
The Obama administration showed an inability to decide whether to support America's traditional ally Mubarak or to get on the side of history and support his ouster. On Gadhafi, the White House looked even more confused until European allies all but forced its hand.
This "spread of democracy" is not what it seems. And it's not going to end anytime soon. Nor will more moderate nations and forces in the Middle East be exempt from the movement's reach. A combination of social media and well-coordinated dissidents are riding the same idealistic wave that brought Iran out of the dark repression of the shah of Iran -- another American ally. Unfortunately, that easing into democracy morphed into a falling into the hands of an evil regime that has been in various stages of open or secret warfare with America in the three decades since it took over.
Naturally, stuck in the middle of this mess is America's great ally and friend Israel. Make no mistake, the goal of those who will take advantage of this regional anarchy will first be to install radical, repressive Islamic fundamentalist regimes where they can. Then they will train their eyes -- and maybe their guns -- on Israel, seeking its utter destruction.
Egypt, because of the strength of its popular army that's currently in charge, will be the last nation in the region to fall prey to this reactionary trend, not the first. But radical fundamentalists will have a much easier time taking down lesser nations in the region. Remember that many of these nations' citizens know nothing but totalitarianism. They may get it again, and worse.
We face one of the gravest shifts in the stability of power among nation-states since the taking of Eastern Europe by the Soviets in the years after World War II.
Naturally, there is criticism of President Obama's handling of the crisis. In some ways, it brings back memories of the Carter administration's reaction to both the situation at the time in Iran and to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That is, an understandable reluctance to engage these problems openly, but one that looks to enemies like weakness to be exploited.
But this series of events goes beyond President Obama. It forces all of us realize -- if we hadn't already -- that the attack on America of 9/11 was not the final gesture of a dying, ancient culture. The fanatics that seek to hijack the Muslim world have been breeding their ideology and their practical strategies in homes and slums and even caves. Many of them do so within Western nations, where they have for the most part been welcomed.
I am not one who views every Muslim as a radical or an extremist. But I am a student of history, and I can recognize a blazing geopolitical fire when I see one.
This destabilization can be expected to bring new woe to our own economic situation, even though our stock market has been comparatively strong of late. Already the travel industry is suffering from the turmoil overseas. And gasoline prices will continue to rise as speculation about these new conflicts runs rampant.
"No-fly zone." Those are strong words, but they must be backed up by the full faith and military willingness of America. The United Nations may or may not give its stamp of approval to our actions, but the U.N. isn't going to dig our way out of this mess.
We are fighting the wrong war, as we have been for years. With due deference to our new and suffering allies in Libya and beyond, Iran ultimately will prove to play the role of Japan and Germany in the 1940s. Iran will be the catalyst that thrusts us unwillingly into a scary, new 21st century world.