Excerpts from 'The Hegemonic Quicksand'

From the standpoint of American interests, the current geopolitical state of affairs in the world's principal energy-rich zone leaves much to be desired.

From the standpoint of American interests, the current geopolitical state of affairs in the world's principal energy-rich zone leaves much to be desired. Several of the key exporting states-notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates-are weak and politically debilitated. Iraq faces a prolonged period of stabilization, reconstruction and rehabilitation. Another major energy producer, Iran, has a regime hostile to the United States and opposes U.S. efforts on behalf of a Middle Eastern peace. It may be seeking wmd and is suspected of terrorist links. The United States has sought to isolate Iran internationally, but with limited success.

Just to the north, in the southern Caucasus and Central Asia, the newly independent energy-exporting states are still in the early stages of political consolidation. Their systems are fragile, their political processes arbitrary and their statehood vulnerable. They are also semi-isolated from the world energy markets, with American legislation blocking the use of Iranian territory for pipelines leading to the Persian Gulf and with Russia aggressively seeking to monopolize international access to Turkmen and Kazakh energy resources. Only with the completion, several years from now, of the U.S.-sponsored Baku-Çeyhan pipeline will Azerbaijan and its trans-Caspian neighbors gain an independent link to the global economy. Until then, the area will be vulnerable to Russian or Iranian mischief.

For the time being, the powerful and exclusive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region and the effective U.S. monopoly of significant long-range warfare capabilities give America a very considerable margin for unilateral policymaking. If it should become necessary to cut the potential nexus between the proliferation of wmd and conspiratorial terrorism, the United States has the means to act on its own, as it proved in bringing down the recent Iraqi regime. The problem becomes more complex, however, and the chances of a solitary American success more ephemeral, when the longer-range consequences of a violent strategic upheaval are taken into account.

It is difficult to envisage how the United States alone could force Iran into a basic reorientation. Outright military intimidation might work initially, given the gaping disparity of power between the two states, but it would be a gross error to underestimate the nationalist and religious fervor that such an approach would likely ignite among the 70 million Iranians. Iran is a nation with an impressive imperial history and with a sense of its own national worth. While the religious zeal that brought the theocratic dictatorship to power seems to be gradually fading, an outright collision with America would almost certainly re-ignite popular passions, fusing fanaticism with chauvinism.

While Russia has not stood in the way of any decisive U.S. military efforts to alter the strategic realities of the region, the current geopolitical earthquake in the Persian Gulf could jeopardize America's efforts to consolidate the independence of the Caspian Basin states. American preoccupation with the mess in Iraq, not to mention the cleavage between America and Europe as well as the increased American-Iranian tensions, has already tempted Moscow to resume its earlier pressure on Georgia and Azerbaijan to abandon their aspirations for inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic community, and to step up its efforts to undermine any enduring U.S. political and military presence in Central Asia. That would make it more difficult for the United States to engage the Central Asian states in a larger regional effort to combat Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A resurgence of Muslim extremism of the Taliban variety could then even acquire a regional scope.

These risks could be lessened by closer U.S.-eu strategic collaboration with regard to Iraq and Iran. That may not be easy to achieve, given divergent American and European perspectives, but the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs of any compromise. For the United States, a joint approach would mean less freedom of unilateral action; for the European Union, it would mean less opportunity for self-serving inaction. But acting together-with the threat of U.S. military power reinforced by the eu's political, financial and (to some degree) military support-the Euro-Atlantic community could foster a genuinely stable and possibly even democratic post-Saddam regime.

Together, the United States and European Union would also be better positioned to deal with the broader regional consequences of the upheaval in Iraq. Significant progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would reduce the Arab concern that U.S. actions directed at Iraq's regime were inspired by Israel's desire to weaken all neighboring Arab states while perpetuating its control over the Palestinians. Moreover, strategic collaboration between the United States and the eu would make it easier for Turkey to avoid a painful choice between its loyalty as a U.S. ally and its hopes for eu membership.

Pages