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Look To the East

By Eric M. Nelson

The citizens of Constantinople had it easy when it came to foreign policy. Each day, many of them passed by a column near the Hagia Sophia on which rested an equestrian statue of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to reign in their city. The Emperor's arm extended east, complementing the famous inscription on the column: "From this direction will come the one who will undo me."

In 1453, more than 1,000 years after his reign had ended, Constantine's prophesy was fulfilled when the Ottoman sultan sacked the ancient capital and conquered its once-glorious empire.

The citizens of Constantinople had it easy because, at least in theory, their enemy and the threat to their safety and sovereignty was identified for them. There was no need to guess, speculate, strategize or ponder the state of the world and the balance of power. In other words, one might suspect that medieval Constantinople did not boast the best job market for foreign policy gurus.

Now, whether or not many of us would put terribly much stock in a statue with a pointy finger, we can all envy the assurances that it brought the people of that great city. Indeed, what is the analysis of American foreign policy, if not the conscious effort to erect a prophetic column of our own, pointing the way to our enemies, present and future? So, in what direction or directions should our finger be pointing? Where are the threats and enemies of freedom, and from where will they come?

In one very significant sense the finger should still be pointed due east, directly towards the epidemic spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet in no area of the globe is our foreign policy more confused than in the Arab world. Reading of the violent seizure of Kabul, Afghanistan by fundamentalist forces only several days ago, one is unable to comprehend the casual and ambivalent way in which many of our nation's policy-makers seem to view this phenomenon.

But Afghanistan is only the most recent example. Already, countries as diverse as Algeria and Turkey have embraced Islamic zealotry, and one cannot doubt that more are to follow--all this under the watchful eye of an aspiring and frightening power, Iran. Almost as a rule, these Islamic revolutions turn to tyranny and terror, creating countries that are belligerent and hostile to their neighbors and placed in direct, sometimes armed opposition to the expanse of earth they call "the West."

Perhaps some wonder if there is anything we can do to halt the spread of this political disaster or, more importantly, to restrict the hegemony of the countries that have already wandered down that dark path. The events of the last month should have taught us that there is.

President Clinton's handling of the recent crisis in the Persian Gulf, for example, was entirely appropriate. Those who call constantly for the ouster of Sadaam Hussein seem oblivious to the first rule of containment strategy: thou shalt not create any power vacuums. If we remove Hussein, who takes over? There is no question that an unduly weakened Iraq would summon Iranian intervention.

More difficult to analyze is the Middle East. Yet the same first rule of containment is at issue. Last week's riots in Gaza underscore a powerful concern, for they make clear that Yassir Arafat cannot control the land he governs. If the peace process advances in such a way that an autonomous Palestinian state on the Israeli border is at issue, perhaps we should remember these events and their broader implications. A weak government is an invitation to chaos and its usual parasite in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism.

Whatever the solutions to these problems, it seems clear that, half a millennium later, the finger still points east.

Eric Nelson's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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