The Middle East is the common appellation by which West Asia is better known and is the huge swathe of territory which lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Sub-continent. It is one of the most significant geo-strategic regions in the world in which the strategic interests of the global major powers intersect. Home to the world's largest deposits of oil and natural gas, the region has seen conflicts and tussles for control of these resources and the jostling for influence in the region.
The Middle East region comprises predominantly of Islamic nations with the exception of Israel. With the exception of Iran, the Islamic countries of the Middle East are ethnically Arab in composition. The emergence of Israel in 1948 as a new nation state in the Middle East firmament was hotly opposed politically and militarily by the Arab countries. This hostility lingers till today and is the main cause of conflict and confrontation.
Oil was used as a weapon by the Arab countries in the early 1970's to bring the Arab-Israel dispute to the fore. The oil prices were tripled and flush with their new found financial resources the Middle East countries undertook a massive modernization and up-gradation of their armed forces and thereby adding further conflictual contours to an already unstable region.
During the Cold War years, in terms of influence the Middle East was marked by a United States area of influence comprising oil-rich Arab monarchial states and a Soviet area of influence comprising the Arab Socialist radical regimes led by military officers mostly who had overthrown the monarchial regimes in their states.
Both United States and the Soviet Union armed their prot'g' states heavily and the Middle East became one of the most heavily militarized regions of the world. In addition the United States was heavily militarizing the Shah regime in Iran as the pillar of its strategic configuration.
To the externally generated conflict prone contours must also be added the domestic political, economic and social divides that characterized the region which in turn added turbulence to the conflicts and confrontation that distinguished the region. In the Arab monarchial countries allied to the United States the oil riches never percolated down to the masses fuelling discontent and radical tendencies. The Arab socialist states were not oil-rich and had to depend mostly on external economic aid. Resources for economic development were scarce due to high costs of military build-up and this again created discontent and social confrontation.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 drastically changed the strategic picture in the Middle East. It brought into prominence with telling effect the power of Islam as a politico-religious weapon not only to overthrow despotic regimes but that such regimes despite their strong patronage from a superpower like the United States could also be overthrown. The United States-Iran confrontation that originated in 1979 prevails even today with greater intensity with the eventuality of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
With the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union the United States emerged as the global superpower with unmatched military superiority and with no countervailing power to restrain it. Ironically, along with it in tandem emerged the specter of the Middle East now becoming a region of conflict and confrontation with Islamist forces ranged against the United States in asymmetric warfare and global terrorism. 9/11 was the extreme manifestation of this fanatical Islamist confrontation with the United States.
The Middle East has perpetually been in conflict and confrontation since the end of World War II. There have been four Arab-Israeli Wars,, the Anglo-French Invasion of the Suez Canal, the Lebanon Wars, the eight year long Iran-Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the two Gulf Wars by the United States against Iraq and the many side show conflicts that interspersed these conflicts.
In 2007, the picture of the Middle East in terms of conflict and confrontation looks as dismal as ever. There is a virtual civil war in Iraq alongside the insurgency against the United States forces. There is an intense confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue which could blow into full scale hostilities. Iran and Saudi Arabia can be said to be in a Cold War mode with a tussle to emerge as regional powers. Israel is besieged by Palestinian and Lebanese armed Islamic militias. Islamic militias are also battling American forces in Iraq. The Al Qaeda is now making inroads into the Middle East with their leadership safely ensconced in Pakistan.
So what we are seeing today is not wars between the Arab nations and the United States but a host of armed militias of the Islamic world ranged against the United States , the West and Israel stretching from Lebanon to Afghanistan, that is the entire expanse of the Middle East. And to make matters worse none of the Arab nations allied to the United States seem to have or making an effort to control this confrontation.
Conflict and confrontation today in the Middle East can be said to be acquiring the contours of a 'War of Civilizations' as visualized by Huntington. The Middle East today seems to be engulfed in a vicious conflict and onslaught by Islamist fundamentalist forces against the United States and the West.
With such contours the conflict and confrontation in the Middle East presents the dismal prospects of being long drawn-out and vicious. Within the Middle East no sane voices or civil societies are visible which could advise or impose restraint on the armed Islamist militias or to curb terrorism of the Al Qaeda variety.
The United States and the West therefore have a formidable challenge on their hands and therefore any Middle East peace processes would have to be 'inclusivist' initiatives which may require co-opting Russia and China too.