One night when I was in my teens, I found myself at a production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. I had never heard of the playwright or the play, nor had I seen a play performed in the round. The actors were dramatically entering and exiting in the aisles when, suddenly, a man stood up in the audience, proclaimed himself a seventh character in search of an author, and demanded the same attention as the other six. At the time, I assumed the unruly “seventh character” was just part of the play, even after he was summarily ejected from the theater.

Now, bear with me a moment here. Back in 2002-2003, officials in the Bush administration, their neocon supporters, and allied media pundits, basking in all their Global War on Terror glory, were eager to talk about the region extending from North Africa through the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan right up to the Chinese border as an “arc of instability.” That arc coincided with the energy heartlands of the planet and what was needed to “stabilize” it, to keep those energy supplies flowing freely (and in the right directions), was clear enough to them. The “last superpower,” the greatest military force in history, would simply have to put its foot down and so bring to heel the “rogue” powers of the region. The geopolitical nerve would have to be mustered to stamp a massive “footprint”–to use a Pentagon term of the time–in the middle of that vast, valuable region. Also needed was the nerve not just to lob a few cruise missiles in the direction of Baghdad, but to offer such an imposing demonstration of American shock-and-awe power that those “rogues”–Iraq, Syria, Iran (Hezbollah, Hamas)–would be cowed into submission, along with uppity U.S. allies like oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

It would, in fact, be necessary–in another of those bluntly descriptive words of the era–to “decapitate” resistant regimes. This would be the first order of business for the planet’s lone “hyperpower,” now that it had been psychologically mobilized by the attacks of September 11, 2001. After all, what other power on Earth was capable of keeping the uncivilized parts of the planet from descending into failed-state, all-against-all warfare and dragging us (and our energy supplies) down with them?

Mind you, on September 11, 2001, as those towers went down, that arc of instability wasn’t exactly a paragon of… well, instability. Yes, on one end was Somalia, a failed state, and on the other, impoverished, rubble-strewn Afghanistan, largely Taliban-ruled (and al-Qaeda encamped); while in-between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a severely weakened nation with a suffering populace, but the “arc” was wracked by no great wars, no huge surges of refugees, no striking levels of destruction. Not particularly pleasant autocracies, some of a fundamentalist religious nature, were the rule of the day. Oil flowed (at about $23 a barrel); the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmered uncomfortably; and, all in all, it wasn’t a pretty picture, nor a particularly democratic one, nor one in which, if you were an inhabitant of most of these lands, you could expect a fair share of justice or a stunningly good life.

Still, the arc of instability, as a name, was then more prediction than reality. And it was a prediction–soon enough to become self-fulfilling prophesy–on which George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and all those neocons in the Pentagon readily staked careers and reputations. As a crew, already dazzled by American military power and its potential uses, such a bet undoubtedly looked like a sure winner, like betting with the house in a three-card monte scheme. They would just give the arc what it needed–a few intense doses of cruise-missile and B-1 bomber medicine, and some “regime-change”-style injections of further instability. It was to be, as Andrew Bacevich has written, “an experiment in creative destruction.”

First Afghanistan, then Iraq. Both pushovers. How could the mightiest force on the planet lose to such puny powers? As a start, you would wage a swift air-war/proxy-war/Special-Forces war/dollar-war in one of the most backward places on the planet. Your campaign would be against an ill-organized, ill-armed, ragtag enemy. You would follow that by thrusting into the soft, military underbelly of the Middle East and taking out the hollow armed forces of Saddam Hussein in a “cakewalk.”

Next, with your bases set up in Afghanistan and Iraq on either side of Iran–and Pakistan, also bordering Iran, in hand–what would it take to run some increasingly unpopular mullahs out of Tehran? Meanwhile, Syria, another weakened, wobbly state divided against itself, now hemmed by militarily powerful Israel and American-occupied Iraq would be a pushover. In each of these lands, you would end up with an American-friendly government, run by some figure like the Pentagon’s favorite Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi; and, voilà! (okay, they wouldn’t have used French), a Middle East made safe for Israel and for American domination. You would, in short, have your allies in Europe and Japan as well as your possible future enemies, Russia and China, by the throat in an increasingly energy-starved world.

Certainly, many of the top officials of the Bush administration and their neocon allies, dreaming of just such an orderly, American-dominated “Greater Middle East,” were ready to settle for a little chaos in the process. If a weakened Iraq broke into several parts; or, say, the oil-rich Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia happened to fall off that country, well, too bad. They’d deal.

Little did they know.

The Tin Touch

Here’s the remarkable thing: All the Bush administration had to do was meddle in any country in that arc of instability (and which one didn’t it meddle in?), for actual instability, often chaos, sometimes outright disaster to set in. It’s been quite a record, the very opposite of an imperial golden touch.

And, on any given day, you can see the evidence of this on a case by case basis in your local paper or on the TV news. But what you never see is all those crises and potential crises discussed in one place–without which the magnitude of the present disaster and the dangers in our future are hard to grasp.

Few in the mainstream world have even tried to put them all together since the Bush administration rolled back the media, essentially demobilizing it in 2001-2002, at which point its journalists and pundits simply stopped connecting the dots. Give the Bush administration credit: Its top officials took in the world as a whole and at an imperial glance. They regularly connected the dots as they saw them. The post-9/11 strike at Afghanistan was never simply a strike at al-Qaeda (or the Taliban who hosted them). It was always a prelude to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And the invasion of Iraq was never meant to end in Baghdad (as indicated in the neocon pre-war quip, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”). Nor was Tehran to be the end of the line.

Under the rubric of the “Global War on Terror,” they were considering dozens of countries as potential future targets. Dick Cheney put the matter bluntly back in August 2002 as the public drumbeat for an invasion of Iraq was just revving up:

“The war in Afghanistan is only the beginning of a lengthy campaign, Cheney noted. ‘Were we to stop now, any sense of security we might have would be false and temporary… There is a terrorist underworld out there spread among more than 60 countries.'”

Almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, they began stitching together the arc of instability in their minds with an eye not so much to Arabs, or South Asians, or even Israelis, but to playing their version of what the British imperialists used to call “the Great Game.” They had the rollback of energy-giant Russia in mind as well as the containment or rollback of potential future imperial power, China, already visibly desperate for Iraqi, Iranian, and other energy supplies. In the year before the invasion of Iraq, they were remarkably blunt about this. They proudly published that seminal document of the Bush era, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002, which called for the U.S. to “build and maintain” its military power on the planet “beyond challenge.”

Think about that for a moment. A single power on Earth “beyond challenge.” This was a dream of planetary dominion that once would have been left to madmen. But in what looked like a world with only one Great Power, it was easy enough to imagine a Great Game with only one great player, an arms race with only one swift runner.

The Bush administration was essentially calling for a world in which no superpower, or bloc of powers, would ever be allowed to challenge this country’s supremacy. As the President put it in an address at West Point in 2002, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” The National Security Strategy put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” That’s anywhere on the planet. Ever. And the President and his followers promptly began to hike the Pentagon budget to suit their oversized, military fantasies of what an American “footprint” should be.

With this in mind, the arc of instability, which, in energy-flow terms, was quite literally the planet’s heartland, seemed the place to control. And yet, you’re unlikely to find a single piece in your daily paper that takes in that arc. To take but one obvious example, the rise of Iran (and a possible “Shiite crescent”), Iran’s influence or interference in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s off-the-wall president have been near obsessions in our media; and yet, you would be hard-pressed to find a piece even pointing out that the Bush administration’s two invasions and occupations–Iraq and Afghanistan–which left both those countries bristling with vast American bases and sprawling American-controlled prison systems, took place on either side of Iran. Add in the fact that the Bush administration, probably through the CIA, is essentially running terror raids into Iran through Pakistan and you have a remarkably different vision of Iran’s geostrategic situation than even an informed American media consumer would normally see.

After September 11, 2001, but based on the sort of pre-2001 thinking you could find well represented at the neocon website Project for the New American Century, the Bush administration’s top officials wrote their own drama for the arc of instability. They were, of course, the main characters in it, along with the U.S. military, some Afghan and Iraqi exiles who would play their necessary roles in the “liberation” of their countries, and a few evil ogres like Saddam Hussein.

Today, not six years after they raised the curtain on what was to be their grand imperial drama, they find themselves in a dark theater with at least six crises in search of an author, all clamoring for attention–and every possibility that a seventh (not to say a seventeenth) “character” in that rowdy, still gathering, audience may soon rise to insist on a part in the horrific farce that has actually taken place.

[Note: This is the first of three parts. Tomorrow: The Six Crises.]