The World in 2005

Hidden in plain sight

As Americans, we have a natural tendency to believe that world events over the next few years will unfold from September 11. But in truth much of the world will evolve without regard to September 11. Civil wars will continue, diseases will break out, and local economic crises will run their course. The challenge is to anticipate how these other processes will intersect with the war on terrorism.

We saw an example of such intersection after the start of the air campaign in Afghanistan, when anti-Americanism among Muslims in northern Nigeria sparked a pogrom that left hundreds of local Christians dead or wounded. Intercommunal riots have been on the increase in Nigeria for years—the result, in part, of rising numbers of young males and the destabilizing effects of democratization, which have strengthened the forces of religious mobilization. The collision of these factors with America's anti-terror campaign ignited the recent violence.

What other existing trends are likely to collide with the war on terrorism—and how?

In the Middle East the war on terrorism could have the unintended consequence of disturbing regional politics to a degree unknown since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Remember that the war has been launched at a time when secular-nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are so vulnerable that only the sons of dictators are trusted to succeed the dictators. Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are all facing, at best, Mexican-style political and economic disorder, without Mexico's advantage of a long border with a First World country to which it can export millions of jobless workers and from which it can import billions of investment dollars. Because of economic and cultural transformation tied to urbanization, the next generation of Arab autocrats will, like their Mexican counterparts today, not be permitted to rule as autocratically as their predecessors. Yet none of these countries is capable of sustainable parliamentary democracy, not even to the limited degree that Mexico has achieved.

Aggravating the kind of political and economic turbulence that has been a feature of Mexican society for more than a decade will be bulges in the number of youths across the Middle East, the most severe occurring in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Gaza, and the West Bank. In Egypt, too, the percentage of males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine—the age group that traditionally stirs up unrest—will be dangerously high through 2020. Meanwhile, the amount of available water per capita will diminish by nearly half in many parts of the Middle East over the next twenty years. These inescapable realities will only become more troublesome if there is any sort of global economic downturn.

In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak's banal authoritarianism represents the Egyptian equivalent of the Soviet Union's Brezhnev-Chernenko era. There is no Mikhail Gorbachev on the horizon. Saudi Arabia, despite its oil wealth, will prove even less governable than Egypt. It lacks the organizing geography of a great river valley, where most of the population lives within easy reach of central control. In stretches of Saudi Arabia, such as Nejd, the regime has already essentially lost its legitimacy. The experience of neighboring Yemen, with its brazen highwaymen and rampant kidnappings, may be what Saudi Arabia can look forward to—and that's the optimistic view.

Nominally pro-American regimes in the Arab heartland are not the only ones in a state of calcification. So is the anti-American regime in Iran. There the population of 66 million is refreshingly pro-American, owing to real-life experience with an Islamic revolution that has bankrupted the middle class and destroyed both the aura and the legitimacy of the clergy. In Iraq the level of repression is comparable to that in the Soviet Union under Stalin and in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu. Once Saddam Hussein's regime is brought down, the reaction among the populace may be no less enthusiastic than it was in Afghanistan when the United States dismantled the Taliban regime.

The Middle East, then, may be poised for a flip-flop, with the United States having embassies a few years hence in Tehran and Baghdad but not in Cairo, and with U.S. forces withdrawing from bases in an increasingly volatile Saudi Arabia.

Although the American-led anti-terror campaign may stoke the flames of fundamentalism in some places, including Egypt, the new century will ultimately see the implosion of political Islam. Because there is "no Islamic way to fix a car," as the saying goes, Islamic regimes offer only the sterile repression of the Taliban or the incompetent economic management of the ayatollahs. The rise of militant Islam in Pakistan, if it continues, will not create a new anti-American force so much as it will further weaken the state itself. Pakistani Islamists, divided by ethnicity and subdivided by clan, lack a unifying, Khomeini-like figure.

From the archives:

"A Modest Proposal From the Brigadier" (March 2002)
What one prominent Pakistani thinks his country should do with its atomic weapons. By Peter Landesman

Indeed, the most dangerous underlying trend in the Subcontinent is the weakening of central authority. This, in turn, intensifies bellicosity between Pakistan and India, because foreign policy represents the last arena in which the state can exert its traditional primacy. The fate of the war on terrorism will hinge to no small degree on the ability of the Bush Administration to manage the India-Pakistan rivalry. Pakistani intervention in the affairs of Afghanistan lay behind the radicalization of Afghanistan's politics in the first place. That intervention was driven by the need to create a rear wall of militant Islamic states to stand against predominantly Hindu India.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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