Sen. Lindsey Graham said it best. Speaking of the challenges the next secretary of defense will confront, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, warned that he will face a world on fire.
By JOEL BRINKLEY
Tribune Media Services
So true, and the Middle East along with the larger Islamic world are the perfect demonstration. When have we ever seen such widespread turmoil, destruction and death as we are witnessing right now?
Every day we hear about the continuing violence in Syria, Pakistan, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria and elsewhere. Overlooked now is the fact that, until recently, many of those nations were ruled by dictators. The world was jubilant, myself included, when several of them lost power in the Arab Spring.
But hard as it may be to admit, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and others did maintain policies that were effective, though often cruel, in keeping ethnic, religious and social divisions under control.
Look at Iraq right now. In recent days, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been staging massive demonstrations against Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikis government. Some journalists and politicians are calling this Iraqs Arab Spring.
But thats not the situation at all. The demonstrators are Sunni; Malikis government is Shiite. Thats Iraqs principal ethnic fault line, one that has existed since the state was born. On Sunday, four car bombs in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad killed at least 21 people and wounded 125 more. And Maliki complains, probably correctly, that the demonstrators are upset only because they no longer control the government.
And what about Egypt, now home to rampaging protests and demonstrations almost every day? Here, too, we are looking at a religious-social divide. While the Mubarak government held power, the Muslim Brotherhood won support among the masses by providing food and social services. Now the country is riven by conflict between Brotherhood supporters and secular urbanites.
And in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in 2010, the nation is falling back into chaos after the murder early this month of Chokri Belaid, an opposition politician who was shot as he was leaving his house.Tens of thousands took to the streets again, laying bare that states political-social fault line.
Before the revolution just over two years ago, Tunisia had been a bastion of Arab secularism, enforced by Ben Ali. Now Islamists dominate the government.
At the same time, all of this instability in so many nations has given Islamic extremism room to spread like cancer. Look at what has happened in northern Mali, where French troops drove out extremists, only to find that they have left behind a guerrilla war between Islamist and secular Malians.
In Syria, members of al Nusra, an Islamic terror group, are flooding into rebel-controlled areas and slaughtering secular rebels. And who can forget the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last fall and the raid in Algeria that left at least 38 hostages dead?
What do we take from all of this?
All of these countries were led by men who actively repressed their nations social and religious divisions. But after the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring revolutions, those divisions sprang up once again in full force.
The problem is that in each state a leader representing one side or the other has taken power Shiites in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia and Libya.
Is there any solution? None the West can impose. But soon enough, perhaps, the people of these states will realize that they need a technocrat government, one that concentrates its efforts on economic development and social equality and doesnt try to promote the interests of one ethnic or religious group over another.
Facing governments that hold a broad popular mandate, Islamic extremists will find it difficult to attract followers. Instability is the extremists friend.
Until that day comes, that part of world is fated to remain on fire the needs of its people totally ignored as self-interested leaders fight to keep their sect in power.
Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a former New York Times correspondent.