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Oil Wars on the Horizon

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Posted by Michael Klare at 7:42am, May 10, 2012.

There has been much discussion recently about the Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia: the 250 Marines sent to Darwin, Australia, the littoral combat ships for Singapore, the support for Burmese “democracy,” war games in the Philippines (and a drone strike there as well), and so on.  The U.S. is definitely going offshore in Asian waters, or put another way, after a decade-long hiatus-cum-debacle on the Eurasian continent, the Great Game v. China is back on.

While true, however, the importance of this policy change has been exaggerated.  At the moment, as it happens, the greatest game isn’t in Asia at all; it’s in the Persian Gulf where, off the coast of Iran and in bases around the region, the U.S. is engaged in a staggering build-up of naval and air power.  Most people would have little idea that this was even going on, since it rarely makes its way into the mainstream and even less often onto front pages or into the headlines.  The Washington Times, for instance, has been alone in reporting that, for the U.S. military, “war planning for Iran is now the most pressing scenario.”  It adds that the “U.S. Central Command believes it can destroy or significantly degrade Iran’s conventional armed forces in about three weeks using air and sea strikes.”

Most of the time, however, you have to be a genuine news jockey or read specialist sites to notice the scale of what’s going on, even though the build-up in the Gulf is little short of monumental and evidently not close to finished.  It’s not just the two aircraft carrier task forces now there, but (as the invaluable Danger Room website has reported) the doubling of minesweepers stationed in Bahrain, as well as the addition of minesweeping helicopters and coastal patrol boats that are being retrofitted with Gattling guns and missiles.  Throw in new advanced torpedoes for Gulf waters and mini-drone subs; add in newly outfitted units of F-22s and F-15s heading for bases in the Gulf to make up “the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team.”  And don’t forget the major CIA drone surveillance program already in operation over Iran (and undoubtedly still being bolstered).

And then, of course, you would have to add in what we don’t know about, including — you can be sure — the strengthening of special operations activities in the region.  It’s the perfect build-up for a post-presidential-election war season.  After a failed war in Iraq that left that country ever more firmly allied with Iran and another failing war in Afghanistan, you might think that the Pentagon would want to back off.  Well, think again.  To adapt the famed mantra of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, “It’s the oil heartlands of the planet, stupid.”  And as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of a new, must-read book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, points out, we’re now entering an era when “war” and “oil” may become synonymous. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses global energy conflicts, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

 

Oil Wars on the Horizon

by MICHAEL T. KLARE

Conflict and intrigue over valuable energy supplies have been features of the international landscape for a long time.  Major wars over oil have been fought every decade or so since World War I, and smaller engagements have erupted every few years; a flare-up or two in 2012, then, would be part of the normal scheme of things.  Instead, what we are now seeing is a whole cluster of oil-related clashes stretching across the globe, involving a dozen or so countries, with more popping up all the time.  Consider these flash-points as signals that we are entering an era of intensified conflict over energy.

Six Recent Clashes and Conflicts on a Planet Heading Into Energy Overdrive

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Argentina to the Philippines, here are the six areas of conflict — all tied to energy supplies — that have made news in just the first few months of 2012:

* A brewing war between Sudan and South Sudan: On April 10th, forces from the newly independent state of South Sudan occupied the oil center of Heglig, a town granted to Sudan as part of a peace settlement that allowed the southerners to secede in 2011.  The northerners, based in Khartoum, then mobilized their own forces and drove the South Sudanese out of Heglig.  Fighting has since erupted all along the contested border between the two countries, accompanied by air strikes on towns in South Sudan.  Although the fighting has not yet reached the level of a full-scale war, international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and a peaceful resolution to the dispute have yet to meet with success.

This conflict is being fueled by many factors, including economic disparities between the two Sudans and an abiding animosity between the southerners (who are mostly black Africans and Christians or animists) and the northerners (mostly Arabs and Muslims).  But oil — and the revenues produced by oil — remains at the heart of the matter.  When Sudan was divided in 2011, the most prolific oil fields wound up in the south, while the only pipeline capable of transporting the south’s oil to international markets (and thus generating revenue) remained in the hands of the northerners.  They have been demanding exceptionally high “transit fees” — $32-$36 per barrel compared to the common rate of $1 per barrel — for the privilege of bringing the South’s oil to market.  When the southerners refused to accept such rates, the northerners confiscated money they had already collected from the south’s oil exports, its only significant source of funds.  In response, the southerners stopped producing oil altogether and, it appears, launched their military action against the north.  The situation remains explosive.

* Naval clash in the South China Sea: On April 7th, a Philippine naval warship, the 378-foot Gregorio del Pilar, arrived at Scarborough Shoal, a small island in the South China Sea, and detained eight Chinese fishing boats anchored there, accusing them of illegal fishing activities in Filipino sovereign waters.  China promptly sent two naval vessels of its own to the area, claiming that the Gregorio del Pilar was harassing Chinese ships in Chinese, not Filipino waters.  The fishing boats were eventually allowed to depart without further incident and tensions have eased somewhat.  However, neither side has displayed any inclination to surrender its claim to the island, and both sides continue to deploy warships in the contested area.

As in Sudan, multiple factors are driving this clash, but energy is the dominant motive.  The South China Sea is thought to harbor large deposits of oil and natural gas, and all the countries that encircle it, including China and the Philippines, want to exploit these reserves.  Manila claims a 200-nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” stretching into the South China Sea from its western shores, an area it calls the West Philippine Sea; Filipino companies say they have found large natural gas reserves in this area and have announced plans to begin exploiting them.  Claiming the many small islands that dot the South China Sea (including Scarborough Shoal) as its own, Beijing has asserted sovereignty over the entire region, including the waters claimed by Manila; it, too, has announced plans to drill in the area.  Despite years of talks, no solution has yet been found to the dispute and further clashes are likely.

* Egypt cuts off the natural gas flow to Israel: On April 22nd, the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Companyinformed Israeli energy officials that they were “terminating the gas and purchase agreement” under which Egypt had been supplying gas to Israel.  This followed months of demonstrations in Cairo by the youthful protestors who succeeded in deposing autocrat Hosni Mubarak and are now seeking a more independent Egyptian foreign policy — one less beholden to the United States and Israel.  It also followed scores of attacks on the pipelines carrying the gas across the Negev Desert to Israel, which the Egyptian military has seemed powerless to prevent.

Ostensibly, the decision was taken in response to a dispute over Israeli payments for Egyptian gas, but all parties involved have interpreted it as part of a drive by Egypt’s new government to demonstrate greater distance from the ousted Mubarak regime and his (U.S.-encouraged) policy of cooperation with Israel.  The Egyptian-Israeli gas link was one of the most significant outcomes of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, and its annulment clearly signals a period of greater discord; it may also cause energy shortages in Israel, especially during peak summer demand periods.  On a larger scale, the cutoff suggests a new inclination to use energy (or its denial) as a form of political warfare and coercion.

* Argentina seizes YPF: On April 16th, Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, announced that her government would seize a majority stake in YPF, the nation’s largest oil company.  Under President Kirchner’s plans, which she detailed on national television, the government would take a 51% controlling stake in YPF, which is now majority-owned by Spain’s largest corporation, the energy firm Repsol YPF.  The seizure of its Argentinean subsidiary is seen in Madrid (and other European capitals) as a major threat that must now be combated.  Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, said that Kirchner’s move “broke the climate of cordiality and friendship that presided over relations between Spain and Argentina.”  Several days later, in what is reported to be only the first of several retaliatory steps, Spain announced that it would stop importing biofuels from Argentina, its principal supplier — a trade worth nearly $1 billion a year to the Argentineans.

As in the other conflicts, this clash is driven by many urges, including a powerful strain of nationalism stretching back to the Peronist era, along with Kirchner’s apparent desire to boost her standing in the polls.  Just as important, however, is Argentina’s urge to derive greater economic and political benefit from its energy reserves, which include the world’s third-largest deposits of shale gas.  While long-term rival Brazil is gaining immense power and prestige from the development of its offshore “pre-salt”petroleum reserves, Argentina has seen its energy production languish.  Repsol may not be to blame for this, but many Argentineans evidently believe that, with YPF under government control, it will now be possible to accelerate development of the country’s energy endowment, possibly in collaboration with a more aggressive foreign partner like BP or ExxonMobil.

* Argentina re-ignites the Falklands crisis: At an April 15th-16th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia — the one at which U.S. Secret Service agents were caught fraternizing with prostitutes — Argentina sought fresh hemispheric condemnation of Britain’s continued occupation of the Falkland Islands (called Las Malvinas by the Argentineans).  It won strong support from every country present save (predictably) Canada and the United States.  Argentina, which says the islands are part of its sovereign territory, has been raising this issue ever since it lost a war over the Falklands in 1982, but has recently stepped up its campaign on several fronts — denouncing London in numerous international venues and preventing British cruise ships that visit the Falklands from docking in Argentinean harbors.  The British have responded by beefing up their military forces in the region and warning the Argentineans to avoid any rash moves.

When Argentina and the U.K. fought their war over the Falklands, little was at stake save national pride, the stature of the country’s respective leaders (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vs. an unpopular military junta), and a few sparsely populated islands.  Since then, the stakes have risen immeasurably as a result of recent seismic surveys of the waters surrounding the islands that indicated the existence of massive deposits of oil and natural gas.  Several UK-based energy firms, including Desire Petroleum and Rockhopper Exploration, have begun off-shore drilling in the area and have reported promising discoveries.  Desperate to duplicate Brazil’s success in the development of offshore oil and gas, Argentina claims the discoveries lie in its sovereign territory and that the drilling there is illegal; the British, of course, insist that it’s their territory.  No one knows how this simmering potential crisis will unfold, but a replay of the 1982 war — this time over energy — is hardly out of the question.

* U.S. forces mobilize for war with Iran: Throughout the winter and early spring, it appeared that an armed clash of some sort pitting Iran against Israel and/or the United States was almost inevitable.  Neither side seemed prepared to back down on key demands, especially on Iran’s nuclear program, and any talk of a compromise solution was deemed unrealistic.  Today, however, the risk of war has diminished somewhat – at least through this election year in the U.S. — as talks have finally gotten under way between the major powers and Iran, and as both have adopted (slightly) more accommodating stances.  In addition, U.S. officials have been tamping down war talk and figures in the Israeli military and intelligence communities have spoken out against rash military actions.  However, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium, and leaders on all sides say they are fully prepared to employ force if the peace talks fail.

For the Iranians, this means blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel through which one-third of the world’s tradable oil passes every day.  The U.S., for its part, has insisted that it will keep the Strait open and, if necessary, eliminate Iranian nuclear capabilities.  Whether to intimidate Iran, prepare for the real thing, or possibly both, the U.S. has been building up its military capabilities in the Persian Gulf area, deploying two aircraft carrier battle groupsin the neighborhood along with an assortment of air and amphibious-assault capabilities.

One can debate the extent to which Washington’s long-running feud with Iran is driven by oil, but there is no question that the current crisis bears heavily on global oil supply prospects, both through Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for forthcoming sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and the likelihood that any air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities will lead to the same thing.  Either way, the U.S. military would undoubtedly assume the lead role in destroying Iranian military capabilities and restoring oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This is the energy-driven crisis that just won’t go away.

How Energy Drives the World

All of these disputes have one thing in common: the conviction of ruling elites around the world that the possession of energy assets — especially oil and gas deposits — is essential to prop up national wealth, power, and prestige.

This is hardly a new phenomenon.  Early in the last century, Winston Churchill was perhaps the first prominent leader to appreciate the strategic importance of oil.  As First Lord of the Admiralty, he converted British warships from coal to oil and then persuaded the cabinet to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the forerunner of British Petroleum (now BP).  The pursuit of energy supplies for both industry and war-fighting played a major role in the diplomacy of the period between the World Wars, as well as in the strategic planning of the Axis powers during World War II.  It also explains America’s long-term drive to remain the dominant power in the Persian Gulf that culminated in the first Gulf War of 1990-91 and its inevitable sequel, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The years since World War II have seen a variety of changes in the energy industry, including a shift in many areas from private to state ownership of oil and natural gas reserves.  By and large, however, the industry has been able to deliver ever-increasing quantities of fuel to satisfy the ever-growing needs of a globalizing economy and an expanding, rapidly urbanizing world population.  So long as supplies were abundant and prices remained relatively affordable, energy consumers around the world, including most governments, were largely content with the existing system of collaboration among private and state-owned energy leviathans.

But that energy equation is changing ominously as the challenge of fueling the planet grows more difficult.  Many of the giant oil and gas fields that quenched the world’s energy thirst in years past are being depleted at a rapid pace.  The new fields being brought on line to take their place are, on average, smaller and harder to exploit.  Many of the most promising new sources of energy — like Brazil’s “pre-salt” petroleum reserves deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean, Canadian tar sands, and American shale gas – require the utilization of sophisticated and costly technologies.  Though global energy supplies are continuing to grow, they are doing so at a slower pace than in the past and are continually falling short of demand.  All this adds to the upward pressure on prices, causing anxiety among countries lacking adequate domestic reserves (and joy among those with an abundance).

The world has long been bifurcated between energy-surplus and energy-deficit states, with the former deriving enormous political and economic advantages from their privileged condition and the latter struggling mightily to escape their subordinate position.  Now, that bifurcation is looking more like a chasm.  In such a global environment, friction and conflict over oil and gas reserves — leading to energy conflicts of all sorts — is only likely to increase.

Looking, again, at April’s six energy disputes, one can see clear evidence of these underlying forces in every case.  South Sudan is desperate to sell its oil in order to acquire the income needed to kick-start its economy; Sudan, on the other hand, resents the loss of oil revenues it controlled when the nation was still united, and appears no less determined to keep as much of the South’s oil money as it can for itself.  China and the Philippines both want the right to develop oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea, and even if the deposits around Scarborough Shoal prove meager, China is unwilling to back down in any localized dispute that might undermine its claim to sovereignty over the entire region.

Egypt, although not a major energy producer, clearly seeks to employ its oil and gas supplies for maximum political and economic advantage — an approach sure to be copied by other small and mid-sized suppliers.  Israel, heavily dependent on imports for its energy, must now turn elsewhere for vital supplies or accelerate the development of disputed, newly discovered offshore gas fields, a move that could provoke fresh conflict with Lebanon, which says they lie in its own territorial waters.  And Argentina, jealous of Brazil’s growing clout, appears determined to extract greater advantage from its own energy resources, even if this means inflaming tensions with Spain and Great Britain.

And these are just some of the countries involved in significant disputes over energy.  Any clash with Iran — whatever the motivation — is bound to jeopardize the petroleum supply of every oil-importing country, sparking a major international crisis with unforeseeable consequences.  China’s determination to control its offshore hydrocarbon reserves has pushed it into conflict with other countries with offshore claims in the South China Sea, and into a similar dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.  Energy-related disputes of this sort can also be found in the Caspian Sea and in globally warming, increasingly ice-free Arctic regions.

The seeds of energy conflicts and war sprouting in so many places simultaneously suggest that we are entering a new period in which key state actors will be more inclined to employ force — or the threat of force — to gain control over valuable deposits of oil and natural gas.  In other words, we’re now on a planet heading into energy overdrive.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet and The Race for What’s Left.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Obama’s Arc of Instability: Destabilizing the World One Region at a Time

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By Nick Turse
Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011

The “arc of instability” includes 97 countries. A startling number of these nations are in turmoil, and in every single one of them, Washington is militarily involved.

It’s a story that should take your breath away: the destabilization of what, in the Bush years, used to be called “the arc of instability.”  It involves at least 97 countries, across the bulk of the global south, much of it coinciding with the oil heartlands of the planet.  A startling number of these nations are now in turmoil, and in every single one of them — from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zambia — Washington is militarily involved, overtly or covertly, in outright war or what passes for peace.

Garrisoning the planet is just part of it.  The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services are also running covert special forces and spy operations, launching drone attacks, building bases and secret prisons, training, arming, and funding local security forces, and engaging in a host of other militarized activities right up to full-scale war.  But while you consider this, keep one fact in mind: the odds are that there is no longer a single nation in the arc of instability in which the United States is in no way militarily involved.

Covenant of the Arc

“Freedom is on the march in the broader Middle East,” the president said in his speech.  “The hope of liberty now reaches from Kabul to Baghdad to Beirut and beyond. Slowly but surely, we’re helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom.”

An arc of freedom.  You could be forgiven if you thought that this was an excerpt from President Barack Obama’s Arab Spring speech, where he said “[I]t will be the policy of the United States to… support transitions to democracy.”  Those were, however, the words of his predecessor George W. Bush.  The giveaway is that phrase “arc of instability,” a core rhetorical concept of the former president’s global vision and that of his neoconservative supporters.

The dream of the Bush years was to militarily dominate that arc, which largely coincided with the area from North Africa to the Chinese border, also known as the Greater Middle East, but sometimes was said to stretch from Latin America to Southeast Asia.  While the phrase has been dropped in the Obama years, when it comes to projecting military power President Obama is in the process of trumping his predecessor.

In addition to waging more wars in “arc” nations, Obama has overseen the deployment of greater numbers of special operations forces to the region, has transferred or brokered the sale of substantial quantities of weapons there, while continuing to build and expand military bases at a torrid rate, as well as training and supplying large numbers of indigenous forces.  Pentagon documents and open source information indicate that there is not a single country in that arc in which U.S. military and intelligence agencies are not now active.  This raises questions about just how crucial the American role has been in the region’s increasing volatility and destabilization.

Flooding the Arc

Given the centrality of the arc of instability to Bush administration thinking, it was hardly surprising that it launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and carried out limited strikes in three other arc states — Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.  Nor should anyone have been shocked that it also deployed elite military forces and special operators from the Central Intelligence Agency elsewhere within the arc.

In his book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist Ron Suskind reported on CIA plans, unveiled in September 2001 and known as the “Worldwide Attack Matrix,” for “detailed operations against terrorists in 80 countries.”  At about the same time, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed that the nation had embarked on “a large multi-headed effort that probably spans 60 countries.”  By the end of the Bush years, the Pentagon would indeed have special operations forces deployed in 60 countries around the world.

It has been the Obama administration, however, that has embraced the concept far more fully and engaged the region even more broadly.  Last year, the Washington Post reported that U.S. had deployed special operations forces in 75 countries, from South America to Central Asia.  Recently, however, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me that on any given day, America’s elite troops are working in about 70 countries, and that its country total by year’s end would be around 120.  These forces are engaged in a host of missions, from Army Rangers involved in conventional combat in Afghanistan to the team of Navy SEALs who assassinated Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, to trainers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines within U.S. Special Operations Command working globally from the Dominican Republic to Yemen.

The United States is now involved in wars in six arc-of-instability nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  It has military personnel deployed in other arc states, including Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Of these countries, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all host U.S. military bases, while the CIA is reportedly building a secret base somewhere in the region for use in its expanded drone wars in Yemen and Somalia.  It is also using already existing facilities in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates for the same purposes, and operating a clandestine base in Somalia where it runs indigenous agents and carries out counterterrorism training for local partners.

In addition to its own military efforts, the Obama administration has also arranged for the sale of weaponry to regimes in arc states across the Middle East, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  It has been indoctrinating and schooling indigenous military partners through the State Department’s and Pentagon’s International Military Education and Training program.* (Emphasis added) Last year, it provided training to more than 7,000 students from 130 countries.  “The emphasis is on the Middle East and Africa because we know that terrorism will grow, and we know that vulnerable countries are the most targeted,” Kay Judkins, the program’s policy manager, recently told the American Forces Press Service.

According to Pentagon documents released earlier this year, the U.S. has personnel — some in token numbers, some in more sizeable contingents — deployed in 76 other nations sometimes counted in the arc of instability: Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Syria, Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

While arrests of 30 members of an alleged CIA spy ring in Iran earlier this year may be, like earlier incarcerations of supposed American “spies”, pure theater for internal consumption or international bargaining, there is little doubt that the U.S. is conducting covert operations there, too.  Last year, reports surfaced that U.S. black ops teams had been authorized to run missions inside that country, and spies and local proxies are almost certainly at work there as well.  Just recently, the Wall Street Journal revealed a series of “secret operations on the Iran-Iraq border” by the U.S. military and a coming CIA campaign of covert operations aimed at halting the smuggling of Iranian arms into Iraq.

All of this suggests that there may, in fact, not be a single nation within the arc of instability, however defined, in which the United States is without a base or military or intelligence personnel, or where it is not running agents, sending weapons, conducting covert operations — or at war.

The Arc of History

Just after President Obama came into office in 2009, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  Drawing special attention to the arc of instability, he summed up the global situation this way: “The large region from the Middle East to South Asia is the locus for many of the challenges facing the United States in the twenty-first century.”  Since then, as with the Bush-identified phrase “global war on terror,” the Obama administration and the U.S. military have largely avoided using “arc of instability,” preferring to refer to it using far vaguer formulations.

During a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium earlier this year, for example, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, then the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, pointed toward a composite satellite image of the world at night.  Before September 11, 2001, said Olson, the lit portion of the planet — the industrialized nations of the global north — were considered the key areas.  Since then, he told the audience, 51 countries, almost all of them in the arc of instability, have taken precedence.  “Our strategic focus,” he said, “has shifted largely to the south… certainly within the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren’t.”

More recently, in remarks at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., John O. Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, outlined the president’s new National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which highlighted carrying out missions in the “Pakistan-Afghanistan region” and “a focus on specific regions, including what we might call the periphery — places like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and the Maghreb [northern Africa].”

“This does not,” Brennan insisted, “require a ‘global’ war” — and indeed, despite the Bush-era terminology, it never has.  While, for instance, planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Germany and would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid hailed from the United Kingdom, advanced, majority-white Western nations have never been American targets.  The “arc” has never arced out of the global south, whose countries are assumed to be fundamentally unstable by nature and their problems fixable through military intervention.

Building Instability

A decade’s evidence has made it clear that U.S. operations in the arc of instability are destabilizing.  For years, to take one example, Washington has wielded military aid, military actions, and diplomatic pressure in such a way as to undermine the government of Pakistan, promote factionalism within its military and intelligence services, and stoke anti-American sentiment to remarkable levels among the country’s population.  (According to a recent survey, just 12% of Pakistanis have a positive view of the United States.)

A semi-secret drone war in that nation’s tribal borderlands, involving hundreds of missile strikes and significant, if unknown levels, of civilian casualties, has been only the most polarizing of Washington’s many ham-handed efforts.  When it comes to that CIA-run effort, a recent Pew survey of Pakistanis found that 97% of respondents viewed it negatively, a figure almost impossible to achieve in any sort of polling.

In Yemen, long-time support — in the form of aid, military training, and weapons, as well as periodic air or drone strikes — for dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh led to a special relationship between the U.S. and elite Yemeni forces led by Saleh’s relatives.  This year, those units have been instrumental in cracking down on the freedom struggle there, killing protesters and arresting dissenting officers who refused orders to open fire on civilians.  It’s hardly surprising that, even before Yemen slid into a leaderless void (after Saleh was wounded in an assassination attempt), a survey of Yemenis found — again a jaw-dropping polling figure — 99% of respondents viewed the U.S. government’s relations with the Islamic world unfavorably, while just 4% “somewhat” or “strongly approved” of Saleh’s cooperation with Washington.

Instead of pulling back from operations in Yemen, however, the U.S. has doubled down. The CIA, with support from Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, has been running local agents as well as a lethal drone campaign aimed at Islamic militants.  The U.S. military has been carrying out its own air strikes, as well as sending in more trainers to work with indigenous forces, while American black ops teams launch lethal missions, often alongside Yemeni allies.

These efforts have set the stage for further ill-will, political instability, and possible blowback.  Just last year, a U.S. drone strike accidentally killed Jabr al-Shabwani, the son of strongman Sheikh Ali al-Shabwani.  In an act of revenge, Ali repeatedly attacked one of Yemen’s largest oil pipelines, resulting in billions of dollars in lost revenue for the Yemeni government, and demanded Saleh stop cooperating with the U.S. strikes.

Earlier this year, in Egypt and Tunisia, long-time U.S. efforts to promote what it liked to call “regional stability” — through military alliances, aid, training, and weaponry — collapsed in the face of popular movements against the U.S.-supported dictators ruling those nations.   Similarly, in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, popular protests erupted against authoritarian regimes partnered with and armed courtesy of the U.S. military.  It’s hardly surprising that, when asked in a recent survey whether President Obama had met the expectations created by his 2009 speech in Cairo, where he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” only 4% of Egyptians answered yes.  (The same poll found only 6% of Jordanians thought so and just 1% of Lebanese.)

A recent Zogby poll of respondents in six Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — found that, taking over from a president who had propelled anti-Americanism in the Muslim world to an all-time high, Obama managed to drive such attitudes even higher. Substantial majorities of Arabs in every country now view the U.S. as not contributing “to peace and stability in the Arab World.”

Increasing Instability Across the Globe

U.S. interference in the arc of instability is certainly nothing new.  Leaving aside current wars, over the last century, the United States has engaged in military interventions in the global south in Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Egypt, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, the Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Somalia, Thailand, and Vietnam, among other places.  The CIA has waged covert campaigns in many of the same countries, as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, and Syria, to name just a few.

Like George W. Bush before him, Barack Obama evidently looks out on the “unlit world” and sees a source of global volatility and danger for the United States.  His answer has been to deploy U.S. military might to blunt instability, shore up allies, and protect American lives.

Despite the salient lesson of 9/11– interventions abroad beget blowback at home — he has waged wars in response to blowback that have, in turn, generated more of the same.  A recent Rasmussen poll indicates that most Americans differ with the president when it comes to his idea of how the U.S. should be involved abroad.  Seventy-five percent of voters, for example, agreed with this proposition in a recent poll: “The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.”  In addition, clear majorities of Americans are against defending Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other arc of instability countries, even if they are attacked by outside powers.

After decades of overt and covert U.S. interventions in arc states, including the last 10 years of constant warfare, most are still poor, underdeveloped, and seemingly even more unstable.  This year, in their annual failed state index — a ranking of the most volatile nations on the planet — Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace placed the two arc nations that have seen the largest military interventions by the U.S. — Iraq and Afghanistan — in their top ten. Pakistan and Yemen ranked 12th and 13th, respectively, while Somalia — the site of U.S. interventions under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, during the Bush presidency in the 2000s, and again under Obama — had the dubious honor of being number one.

For all the discussions here about (armed) “nation-building efforts” in the region, what we’ve clearly witnessed is a decade of nation unbuilding that ended only when the peoples of various Arab lands took their futures into their own hands and their bodies out into the streets.  As recent polling in arc nations indicates, people of the global south see the United States as promoting or sustaining, not preventing, instability, and objective measures bear out their claims.  The fact that numerous popular uprisings opposing authoritarian rulers allied with the U.S. have proliferated this year provides the strongest evidence yet of that.

With Americans balking at defending arc-of-instability nations, with clear indications that military interventions don’t promote stability, and with a budget crisis of epic proportions at home, it remains to be seen what pretexts the Obama administration will rely on to continue a failed policy — one that seems certain to make the world more volatile and put American citizens at greater risk.

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