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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 ninety-seven 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 US 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 US 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.