By thomas l. friedman
THE sex scandal engulfing two of America's top military and intelligence officers could not be coming at a worse time: The Middle East has never been more unstable and closer to multiple, interconnected explosions.
Virtually every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has had a Middle Eastern country that brought him grief. For Ike, it was Lebanon's civil war and Israel's Sinai invasion. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the 1967 Six-Day War. For Richard Nixon, it was the 1973 war. For Jimmy Carter, it was the Iranian Revolution. For Ronald Reagan, it was Lebanon. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq. For Bill Clinton, it was Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq and Afghanistan. For Barack Obama's first term, it was Iran and Afghanistan, again.
And for Mr Obama's second term, I fear that it could be the full nightmare - all of them at once. The whole Middle East erupts in one giant sound and light show of civil wars, states collapsing and refugee dislocations, as the keystone of the entire region - Syria - gets pulled asunder and the disorder spills across the neighbourhood.
And you were worried about the "fiscal cliff".
Ever since the start of the Syrian uprising/civil war, I've cautioned that while Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia implode, Syria would explode if a political resolution was not found quickly. That is exactly what's happening.
The reason Syria explodes is because its borders are particularly artificial, and all its internal communities - Sunnis, Shi'ites, Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians - are linked to brethren in nearby countries and are trying to draw them in for help.
Also, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war against Shi'ite-led Iran in Syria and in Bahrain, which is the base of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. Bahrain witnessed a host of bombings last week as its Sunni-led regime stripped 31 Bahraini Shi'ite political activists of their citizenship. Meanwhile, someone in Syria has decided to start lobbing mortars at Israel. And, on Tuesday night, violent anti-government protests broke out across Jordan over petrol price increases.
What to do? I continue to believe that the best way to understand the real options - and they are grim - is by studying Iraq, which, like Syria, is made up largely of Sunnis, Shi'ites, Christians and Kurds. Why didn't Iraq explode outward like Syria after Saddam Hussein was removed? The answer: America.
For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade - that we triggered ourselves. That is, we pulled the pin, we pulled out Saddam, we set off a huge explosion in the form of a Shi'ite-Sunni contest for power.
Thousands of Iraqis were killed along with more than 4,700 American troops, but the presence of those US troops in and along Iraq's borders prevented the violence from spreading. The US invasion both triggered the civil war in Iraq and contained it at the same time.
After that Sunni-Shi'ite civil war burned itself out, the US brokered a fragile, imperfect power- sharing deal between Iraqi Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds. Then the US got out. It is not at all clear that their deal will survive the departure.
Still, the lesson is that if you're trying to topple one of these iron- fisted, multi-sectarian regimes, it really helps to have an outside power that can contain the explosions and mediate a new order. There is too little trust in these societies for them to do it on their own. Syria's civil war, though, was triggered by predominantly Sunni rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite-Shi'ite regime.
There is no outside power willing to fall on the Syrian grenade and midwife a new order. So the fire rages uncontrolled; refugees are spilling out, and the Shi'ite- Sunni venom unleashed by the Syrian conflict is straining relations between these same communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.
But Iraq teaches another lesson: Shi'ites and Sunnis are not fated to murder each other 24/7/365. Yes, their civil war dates to the 7th century. And, yes, when they started going after each other in Iraq, they did so with breathtaking chainsaw- nails-pounded-into-heads violence. There is nothing like a fight within the faith. Yet, once order was restored, Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis, many of whom have inter-married, were willing to work together and even run together in multi-sectarian parties in the 2009-2010 elections.
So the situation is not hopeless. I know American officials are tantalised by the idea of flipping Syria from the Iranian to the Western camp by toppling Mr Assad. That would make my day, too, but I'm sceptical it would end the conflict.
I fear that toppling Mr Assad, without a neutral third party inside Syria to referee a transition, could lead not only to permanent civil war in Syria but one that spreads around the region. It's a real long shot, but the US should keep trying to work with Russia - Syria's lawyer - to see if together a power-sharing deal can be brokered inside Syria, with a United Nations-led multinational force to oversee it.
Otherwise, this fire will rage on and spread, as the acid from the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict eats away at the bonds holding the Middle East together and standing between this region and chaos.
NEW YORK TIMES