How Bush Has Reordered the Muslim World

News Abroad

Mr. Schweikart is Professor of History, University of Dayton.

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In 1904, geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder unveiled his famous thesis entitled the "Geographical Pivot of History," in which he argued there existed a pivotal area "in the closed heart-land of Euro-Asia" that was isolated from sea power, and thus immune from the influences of oceanic states. In Mackinder's famous three-point summation:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
Who rules the heartland commands the World Island;
Who rules the World Island commands the World.

Mackinder envisioned a struggle between Germany and Russia for the "heartland," essentially dismissing the effects of sea power, which already had been touted by the famous American theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) influenced and altered the thinking in several nations about the role of "blue-water" navies. Mahan rejected the "heartland" thesis, instead claiming that naval power was decisive in recent world history.

It turns out both Mackinder and Mahan were wrong, at least in some important respects. The U.S./coalition victory in Iraq is forcing a re-evaluation of both concepts in light of a dramatic reordering of the Muslo-Arab world and the "heartland," the potential of which is nothing short of breathtaking. Look at what has occurred in the Middle East since 1991---deliberately or unintentionally.

  • First, the Gulf War decimated Iraq's heavy armor, air force, and conventional forces. In the process, the U.S. gained its first thoroughly committed Arab ally, Kuwait. Recently, only Kuwait denounced Iraq, and stood by the United States, in the recent Arab League meetings. Nevertheless, the impact of the Gulf War was not lost on several other Muslim/Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and, perhaps most importantly Qatar, These countries spoke through their actions by giving the U.S. access to air bases, ports, and supply routes,. Don't let geography or population numbers fool you. The support of these states is significant, and Qatar, despite having only 60,000 people, is strategically more important than, say Libya or Chad. In the Iraq war, despite the target being a "fellow Muslim," these allies proved more reliable than America's long-standing European "friends." A total of six Arab countries gave the U.S. support and/or practical help (and nine other Muslim countries offered overflight or other support) in the campaign against Iraq.
  • Second, the 2002 Afghanistan campaign, officially launching the "war on terror," overthrew a brutal regime in a land-locked nation that seemed, at the time, formidable. Remember all the armchair doomsayers, conjuring up images of 19th century British armies, or a 20th century Soviet military machine, bested by the "tough" Afghan fighters? In fact, the Pentagon took a page out of American history---Jefferson's 1804 war on the Barbary pirates---and sent in small regular forces combined with special ops teams and properly motivated local tribesmen. The victory was astonishingly quick, despite claims that Americans couldn't "take the cold" or handle the terrain.

  • In 2003, Iraq, for all intents and purposes, fell in about three weeks of actual fighting. In addition to the aforementioned Arab/Muslim states, a significant number of the "willing" were former Iron Curtain countries who have had a taste of freedom---Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and others. This is where both Mackinder and Mahan enter the picture.

Beginning with the rim Arab nations in the Gulf War, then adding Afghanistan as (ostensibly) a democracy, and now Iraq, the United States potentially (and anything can happen in politics) has a "heartland" alliance going, and a pretty impressive one at that. Only Turkey separates the new Arab allies with the former Iron Curtain allies; and to the east of Afghanistan is a reluctant---but ever helpful---Pakistan. These two states are separated by Iran, on the "axis of evil" hit list.

It is not surprising that there are new calls inside Iran for normalization of relations with the U.S., nor should it shock anyone that the Iranians sent their gunboats on at least one occasion to sink Iraqi suicide vessels headed for our ships. While it is not confirmed, the suspicion is that Iranian forces have sealed off their side of the northern Iraq border and are killing or imprisoning the rebels who managed to escape the Kurdish enema they were given. Iran sees the writing on the wall.

In just over a decade, then, the United States has completely reorganized the power relationships in the entire region. Should Turkey play ball, and if Iran has an internal "regime change," as many expect it to, the swath of the Muslo-European-American alliance would be wide, especially seeing as though still other nations, such as the Ukraine, were moderately supportive of the Iraq war. Such a geo-political shift would isolate the militant Arab states, and possibly open the door for genuine reform in Egypt, Syra, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but it not, those nations would find themselves more marginalized than they already are. Indeed, a Muslo-East Euro-American alliance would send a strong symbolic message to Russia and China alike: the world's superpower just got a bunch of friends.

Nevertheless, even if such a "heartland" alliance comes about, it is far from a validation of the Mackinder thesis. Quite the contrary, so far the restructuring of the region has been achieved largely by a totally new war-fighting plan that called for unprecedented special operations forces; unparalleled precision air power; and application of a military force which has no equal in training in the modern world. These forces could be inserted (by historical standards) rapidly through sea and air power. But if Mackinder doesn't adequately explain the new geo-political arrangements, neither does Mahan. The saga of the 4th Infantry Division is a testimony to the fragility of sea lines of communication and unreliable allies. Indeed, if any single units (besides special ops) came out of this action with added luster, it is the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. (And please, while we are at it, perhaps we can get the media to refrain from ever again using the word "elite" in front of any force except the U.S. Army and USMC!)

But neither are Mackinder and Mahan exactly discredited. Rather, they have been synthesized, then morphed still further by the "Rumsfeld doctrine" of rapid deployment, lighter armor, and heavy employment of intelligence, both electronic and "on the ground." One cannot minimize the profound geopolitical overtones of the new strategy and capabilities. George W. Bush has essentially reshaped not a couple of regimes, but an entire region by his willingness to use the military as an effective tool of foreign policy---to set goals, establish an agenda, then let the professional soldiers do the rest, all using a fairly radical form of warfare that experts universally talk about, but heretofore have never achieved.

The implications of this geo-political and military shift are monumental, and likely going to be missed by the mainstream media, the "Arab lobby" of academics in this country, and even some military analysts. But the writing is on the wall with at least three clear messages:

  1. Bush meant what he said about being "with us, or with the terrorists." That yardstick---and not a specific violation of some UN sanction or possession or a particular weapon---is what has been, and will be used to judge the behavior of other states. Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon will soon be in the crosshairs. While this does not necessarily mean military action, those nations might want to ponder recent history, because regime by regime, the United States has skillfully separated the militant Muslims from the responsible Middle Easterners who want a peaceful, normal life. With each new pruning of the Islamic tree, more everyday Arab men and women will realize they have been lied to by Al-Jazeera, the PLO, and the anti-Semitic dictators who bash Israel and America to cover up their own greed and corruption.

  2. The old, Cold-War alliances have lost their meaning. A new alliance less dependent on sheer geography and more centered on a world view oriented toward liberty has emerged. Its further expansion may condemn the militant Islamic states to the dustbin of history.

  3. Geography is becoming less and less a barrier to effective conventional military action. Despite Turkey's last minute tango, several eastern European countries still managed to contribute units to the Iraq conflict; and most military analysts agree that the 4th Infantry Division likely would not have seen combat too much sooner than they already might even had the Turks approved staging areas. Thus, as Mackinder's "geographical dominance" model becomes irrelevant, so too the technology has outdated Mahan's argument. American sea power fights now from such long ranges, with such imposing standoff weapons, and usually with turbines powered by nuclear reactors, that the need for bases in close proximity to conflict zones diminishes.

Nothing is inevitable, but we are standing on the brink of a reordering of the political alignments of Europe and the Middle East, the likes of which go back to the 19th century. It is a transformation made possible only by radical advances in military technology and the willingness to use it for national security. In the process of doing so, the unintended consequence may be to force Islam into the 21st century or doom it to the 6th.

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J. Bartlett - 4/24/2003

Before we get to "insights", a few simple facts. Jefferson had a busy career filled with long-lasting accomplishments, as ambassador in Europe, as co-author of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, founding a University, buying Louisiana etc...and, of course, writing his own speeches. Gratuitous denigration was not a priority for a statesman who, by any yardstick, was well above C-.

Jonathan Burack - 4/24/2003

I notice a lot of comments here refer to George Bush's C grades. I for one am impressed that his higher education occurred at a time when universtities still gave out Cs. In any case, the snobbery here would be acceptable if it were backed up by some insight. For instance, is it likely Jefferson, or his son for that matter, would have hesitated a second to "denigrate the multilateral capabilities of the Congress of Vienna." Nice analogy, that one, Congress of Vienna to the UN and EU (Metternich to Chirac?), aristocratic reaction to transnatioanl progressive reaction. I say, denigrate away.

Jonathan Burack - 4/24/2003

I notice a lot of comments here refer to George Bush's C grades. I for one am impressed that his higher education occurred at a time when universtities still gave out Cs. In any case, the snobbery here would be acceptable if it were backed up by some insight. For instance, is it likely Jefferson, or his son for that matter, would have hesitated a second to "denigrate the multilateral capabilities of the Congress of Vienna." Nice analogy, that one, Congress of Vienna to the UN and EU (Metternich to Chirac?), aristocratic reaction to transnatioanl progressive reaction. I say, denigrate away.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/24/2003

Frank, The implied answer to your question gets me on that one, since I too have published on HNN and will again in the future. Touche. But increasing numbers of my professional colleagues seem willing to subject themselves to HNN's democracy and, as they do, its quality will improve.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 4/24/2003

There's nothing particularly stunning about the US military success in Iraq, even in the terms of its official advocates, who predicted a swift collapse of the Ba'ath regime. But keep in mind that war is insane without clear-cut objectives, and in this instance the shallowness of neo-con ideology is clear. There has, apparently, been no thought-out plan for post-war Iraq based on knowledge of the country, its history or its society and culture. It's clear from just the run-up to the looting of cultural treasures that this administration is philistine, indifferent--and that it was approached by both organized collectors seeking access to Iraqi artifacts as well as the archaeological community, and chose to do nothing, was I think telling (Iraqi material is already arriving at Logan and Dulles). Even more so was the crony capitalism that seems to have taken over post-war reconstruction--with Bechtel there, will a whole nation come to resemble Boston's "Big Dig?" If Enron had survived, would it be trading futures on Iraqi contracts?

That the Shi'a would rapidly mobilize to fill the vacuum left by parochial US ideologues could've easily been anticipated, and any "re-ordering" of the region would sem to be in the direction of an Islamist state however accommodating to various ethnic and sectarian interests on the ground there, and hostile to whatever vague aims our policymakers have in mind beyond enriching their pals and making Likud happy.

It is also clear that those policymakers have little interest in committing the manpower and money to achieve whatever it is they have in mind, though a retired general who made a fortune for his defense industry emploers and himself is now in charge in Baghdad. That means the war was stupid, driven by half-baked right-wing ideology, undertaken after a deliberate "failure" of diplomacy, and those who have argued it was all about oil sound more and more convincing every day. The only fat lady they seem to hear singing is a scratchy, 1944 recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America," which I last heard where it belongs, deep in Missouri's Meramec Caverns, with Old Glory projected like a rippled potato chip on the stalagmites and stalagtites, played for tourists in shorts and ballcaps.

I would caution the military triumphalists who read HNN that our martial superiority is probably going to be short-lived. We do not have a monopoly of technical ingenuity; our domestic economy is weak; unlike the British in the 19th century, whose imperium neocons admire, we are a major debtor not a creditor nation; the Bush regime's low regard for a system of alliances upon which we depended for 50 years has alienated many. It's one thing to roll over and slaughter a weak opponent, quite another to face enemies who are quite capable of innovation in both conventional battle and "asymmetric" warfare, and the question, "What after....?" is clearly beyond both the intellectual horizons and material resources of our current regime.

I'm a great fan of Thucydidies, just as many neocons I've read seem to be, but the lessons I draw from him are very different: The Bush people make me think I hear echoes of the Athenian rabble rousers who led their city into disaster.

R. Kurdlion - 4/24/2003

The history of the Cheney and Rumsfeld and their think tank brain trust would strongly suggest that "reordering Islam", or at least the states in the Islamic world, is an INTENDED not an unintended consequence of the obsessive removal of Saddam. (Schweikart implies as much at one stage before contradicting himself later on). The UNINTENDED and disregarded and whitewashed consequence may well be that the reordering fails because it is perpetrated by politicians with little diplomatic or military experience who fell into the trap set by bin Laden, not because they didn't see it, but because they don't give a damn about America's long term future. Osama wanted a disproportionate, unthinking broadside response and has now been handed the propaganda material with which to recruit hundreds of successors. If you are an American politician with no policy except a never-ending war on terrorism, that's great, provided pundits and so-called historians, preferably of above C grade point average, can be recruited to bamboozle the masses.

As I pointed out once already, a leaner meaner military has been in the pipeline for a long time, however much Schweikart would like to give credit to the Texas Rangers. We did not need this immoral (because unnecessary) war to test out our GPS-guided missiles. They would have been about as accurate against North Korea if they had been first tried out as part of a UN-approved war on Saddam, the possible war that propagandists like Schweikart would like to sweep under the rug and cover over with weird tales about Admiral Mahan.

Frank Lee - 4/24/2003

Ralph, I agree, but isn't it obvious ? If Larry Swchweikart were a "good historian" would he be writing for HNN ? Frank

Suetonius - 4/23/2003

My original smarmy remarks were based on the fact that neither Luker nor Kurdlion proferrred a plausible, rational, coherent counter-argument to the geopolitical and military-historical argument offered by Mr. Schweikart. Where is the evidence that they offer to show that his analysis is wrong---not just, as Mr. Lee says, a whitewash of failed diplomacy, which is a subjective and inaccurate phrase itself.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/23/2003

Dear Sue,
My comment on Schweikart's belief that Iraq War II has been "most effective military campaign in human history" should have been fuller. I am, as you accurately note, no expert in military history. My point was, simply, that Professor Schweikart seems to have been overwhelmed by the present and making a claim which seems unlikely to be vindicated by any reasonable judgment in light of the the vast breadth of human experience. Being overwhelmed by the present is one of the traps into which a good historian should not fall.

Frank Lee - 4/23/2003

Your comments about military history might make sense, if they formed part of an actual comment about the actual topic on the table: the military legacy of the recent Iraq war. Absent that, you are basically wasting web space. Furthermore even a enlightened thread of comments about Mahan, Mackinder, or Hypocrisy-mit-Cowardice und Rumsfeld, or the Powell Doctrine and other varieties of Belgian Waffles, would not negate the reality, suggested by the comments of Kurdlion (and confirmed by the revealing replies of Schweikart) that the "military history" being proferred here is really just over for a whitewashing of a bungled foreign policy, done for reasons of narrow civilian partisan politics.

Suetonius - 4/22/2003

I?m not convinced that either Luker or Kurdlion have a passing knowledge of military history or an interest in engaging in polite discussion of the topic at hand. Rather than engage the issue dispassionately, both made comments like these:

Ralph Luker wrote:
?Professor Schweikart?s tub-thumping over this ?most effective military campaign in human history? is almost pathetic.?

Richard Kurdlion wrote:

?Meanwhile, lapses in [Schweikart?s] knowledge of European and Mideastern history start to become apparent. ??


?Schweikhart's latest comment suggests that a domestic U.S. political agenda may be contributing to his lopsided treatment of the historical ramifications of the foolhardy neo-imperialism foisted on an unsuspecting general public by the cowardly and un-American "Project for a New American Century".

There may be an argument in both of these posts, but it?s hard to find amid the vehemence.

As a separate matter, I would not be surprised if many history PhDs do not, in fact, have a passing knowledge of military history beyond the basic dates necessary for oblique reference to their own subject material. There were very very few courses at my university on military history and minimal emphasis on acquiring that knowledge.

Derek Catsam - 4/22/2003

Anyone with a PhD probably has more than a passing knowledge of military history, many might even have done a PhD field in foreign relations, surely has read the literature for the pursposes of teaching, and in any case, Mr. Anonymous, since no one can check your own credentials and especially publications, how about making an argument rather than being a punk and trafficking in slimy innuendoes?

Suetonius - 4/22/2003

Mr. Kurdlion and Mr. Luker's expertise in the fields of military history are well-noted.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/22/2003

Professor Schweikart's tub-thumping over this "most effective military campaign in human history" is almost pathetic. Sure, Iraq was a stronger military power than, say, Granada, but Schweikart will not want this line quoted in the long vista of human history.
Only a real winger could speak of a "Clinton/Carter cabal," since the two cabalistas were hardly on speaking terms.
Saddam Hussein was in power in 1983; Adolph Hitler was not.

Richard Kurdlion - 4/22/2003

The military or foreign policy record of Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter was not a subject of Mr. Schweikhart's original article or any subsequent comment here, so what is the point of bringing them up now ? Blunders by prior presidents do not undo incompetency of the current incumbent.

Meanwhile, lapses in knowledge of European and Mideastern history start to become apparent. Saddam was a powerful ruler in 1983 engaged in one of the deadliest wars of the twentieth century. Hitler was an unknown bum in the alleys of Vienna in 1912. There is no viable historical comparability.

The wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan featured plenty of testing of high-tech rapid-response U.S. military might on behalf of aggrieved and oppressed Moslems. But, I cannot recall those conflicts being described as examples of "radical advances in military technology reordering Islam".

Mr. Schweikhart may have the military analysis correct, but his sense of relative proportions is out of whack. On balance so far, what distinguishes the new Iraq war is not so much the flexing of new military muscles as the reckless abandonment of a half century of diplomatic alliances and collective security arrangements. A president with no prior international experience has stumbled his way into a new half-baked Pax Americana. Schweikhart's latest comment suggests that a domestic U.S. political agenda may be contributing to his lopsided treatment of the historical ramifications of the foolhardy neo-imperialism foisted on an unsuspecting general public by the cowardly and un-American "Project for a New American Century".

Larry Schweikart - 4/22/2003

The "collossal blundering" has merely been the most effective military campaign in human history.

The "unworthy leaders" have already accomplished more positively in 3 years than the pathetic Clinton/Carter cabal did in a total of 12.

To worry about why people were not concerned about Saddam in 1983 is like worrying about why people were not concerned about Hitler in 1912.

Richard Kurdlion - 4/22/2003

I suppose one could say that the British were "alienated" from Jeffersonian America when they burned Washington in 1814, but the level of importance to the major European powers of anything the U.S. did in the early 19th century was more akin to the role of Poland or Australia in today's so-called Iraq "coalition": interesting but clearly marginal.

Wilson's 14 points were indeed a mixture of border changes and revisions to rules of international intercourse. A broad and sweeping right to launch preemptive war, contrary to American principles and traditions, did not,however form part of Wilson's program, let alone constitute the whole program. Other than "unintended consequences" and ever-shifting contradictory sound-bites, the Rumsfeld-Cheney innovation boils down to little more than this barbaric, unnecessary, and ultimately unworkable military "doctrine".

If "military technology and the willingness to use it" were a sufficient guaranty of international success, Israel would not be the miserable and frightened place which years of Likud misrule have helped degrade it into.

The more important problem with all this ex-post facto rationalization of a hypocritical war, though, is really two-fold.

Firstly, HOW fundamentalism and dangerous autocracy are challenged is as important as WHETHER. Toppling Saddam was an obviously GOOD thing to do in 1983 when Rumsfeld shook hands with him instead. But instead of helping Iran do it then or letting the Shias and Kurds do in 1991, the neo-con chickenhawks chose to wait decades and then suddenly launch this "after Labor day" war as though it were a new hair spray or deodorant.

And WHY then ? That is the second big problem which future American historians will certainly focus on even as HNN posters like to skirt it: An experienced "non-nation-building" President decided to gamble his country's future in order to improve his record vis a vis Daddy, and get his next election numbers out of hanging chad territory.

The military tradeoffs of land versus seapower, and the possible trajectories of what NY Times columnist Friedman calls the "war within Islam" are interesting and important. They do not overshadow the colossal blundering of an slipshod and shallow-minded foreign policy. Multilateralism was NOT tried, at least not with anything remotely approaching competency or perseverance, and what could have been a just war became instead an exercise in crude and cynical "power reordering". "Unintended Consequences" will have to vie with "Lost Opportunities" for the attention of future historians. Schweikhart covers at most only half of the picture. The U.S.soldiers have done their jobs well and, for the most part, very admirably. It is an everlasting and very avoidable pity that they had do to them at the behest of such unworthy leaders.

mark safranski - 4/21/2003

I want to commend Dr. Schweikart on a thoughtful article blending geopolitical theory, history and current events.

The technology is here to overcome the traditional " tyranny of distance" but few nations other than the United States are willing to shoulder the expense to build that sort of military capability. The United States would be best off encouraging our new coalition of allies to develop instead, "military specialties " ( like the Czechs with CB warfare/decontamination units) that give them a viable and valuable role without the impossible task of matching resources across all military areas

Suetonius - 4/21/2003

"Was "reorganizing power" overseas the reason behind the ? the 14 Points ? "

Wilson's 14 Points was in fact all about reorganizing world power and the ways in which nations related to one another.

Larry Schweikart - 4/21/2003

Jefferson did manage to alienate almost every European power. Not one responded to his overtures to have a "coalition" take care of the pirates. From that perspective, the "C-" student appears to have learned history very well.

Richard Kurdlion - 4/21/2003

Mr. Schweikhart's professional specialty is not mentioned. One might wonder whether it is European or Middle Eastern history.

It has surprised me lately that the Barbary Coast analogy has not been used more often by the Bush Administration, since it is a much more obvious parallel than, say Europe in 1939. Of course, remembering a little undeclared war in 1804 is not easy if you are sleeping and boozing your way to a C- in History at Yale. Alternatively, the fact that Jefferson's son did not have to take out the leader of the Tripoli pirates eleven years later by invading the Ottoman Empire, while managing to insult most countries of Europe and denigrate the multilateral capabilities of the Congress of Vienna, may have given White House spin doctors pause.

The U.S. has "completely reorganized power relationships", says Schweikhart, as if this is something to be proud of. Was "reorganizing power" overseas the reason behind the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address or the 14 Points ? Napoleon and Hitler "reorganized” international “power relationships". Should they be our new heroes ?

There is no question that the Islamic world has received a long overdue jolt. Whether it will now head in a direction that enhances the long term security of America is dubious at best.

James Thornton - 4/21/2003

My primary concern is the reaction to the restructuring of geo-politics now underway. An French-German-Russia axis is in embryonic form, and France is certainly seeking a united Europe under French leadership that can provide alternative world leadership in opposition to the United States. While the United States focuses on Asia new dangers could arise in Europe. The spat between France and Germany on one hand and America on the other is exactly what the Soviet Union sought during the Cold War. The hardliner's in the Kremlin couldn't be more delighted. I foresee Russian influence in Europe increasing at our expense.