Conflict has been a part of the Middle East for millennia. And for almost as long, improving technologies have ensured that each new era of warmaking is more deadly than the last.
Methods of killing have changed dramatically since the biblical story of Cain striking down his brother, Abel, and since Christian crusaders battled with swords and chain mail in the 10th century to recapture the Holy Land from Muslims.
But the reasons for waging war - "honor, fear, and interest," according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides - still apply. And the stark images continue: The once-promising Arab-Israeli peace process is in crisis, bloodshed is revisiting these streets, and saberrattling between nations has again become routine.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War - an event that will continue to shape the region for decades - also brought home unforgettable violence, live on TV. They serve as a sobering reminder of the Mideast's potential for sparking global conflict.
"One drop of blood on TV is now a strategic move," says Shimon Peres, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and former Israeli prime minister, in an interview.
Though young Palestinians still fight Israeli occupation with stones, elsewhere the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons technology - and improving missiles to deliver them - is turning the region into a smaller and more dangerous place.
As the one superpower remaining after the cold war, the United States is being relied upon to shield oil-rich allies in the Persian Gulf, broker and guarantee a lasting peace, and ultimately protect the Jewish state of Israel from its Arab and Islamic enemies.
Only the Middle East combines "such strategic importance and such chronic instability" which carry "profound dangers" for the US, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Robert Pelletreau, has said. "Tempting as it is, we do not have the option of picking up our marbles and going home."
These expectations mean that Americans - half a million of whom fought in the Gulf War - could fight here again. The constant tension, the spread of weapons of mass destruction that give small states the capacity to inflict devastating damage, and the paramount US role all can affect the price of gas at your neighborhood pump every day.
US taxpayers foot the nearly $50 billion bill each year for the 20,000 American troops now on watch in the Persian Gulf. And Americans give $3.5 billion more to Israel each year - a $700 subsidy for every Israeli - and $2.1 billion to Egypt. Together, this US aid is more than double the United Nations annual budget.
In this report the Monitor maps out the Middle East game board in the decades to come, using interviews with scores of American, Arab, Israeli, and Western ambassadors and diplomats, defense attachs, military analysts, soldiers, and decisionmakers from Tel Aviv to Tehran.
The two-part report that begins today spells out the effects of the changing strategic balance and examines the regional fault lines that must be closed - or at least patched over - to ensure peace.
The Offensive War
Fast-improving weapons are shifting the strategic balance.
What's in the Crucible
A volatile mix of land and oil, religion and politics.
A Regional Arms Race
Chemical, biological, nuclear: a look at who has what, and who wants more.
A New Cold War?
Would an Iran with 'the bomb' mean an explosion of terrorism or a new stability?
The Defensive War
With missiles that fly farther, hit harder, and pack the region, real defense may be a myth.
The Lessons of Iraq
What can a determined state hide? Just about anything.
Israel Befriends The 'Outer Ring'
Military superiority alone can't guarantee security. So Israel looks far afield for allies.
Oil and Money
Gulf security: Why 20,000 American troops are still in the Persian Gulf.
Iran's Islamic 'Threat'
Is Iran's leadership still bent on exporting its revolution?
The Last Arms Bazaar
Anxious Gulf states spend billions on arms - most made in America.
America appears to be the ultimate guarantor of peace. Critics say it destabilizes instead.
Interview: Shimon Peres
Israel's best-known peace architect says Israel's survival depends on coming to terms with its neighbors.
Triggers and Fault Lines
The region is riddled with political minefields that could touch off new conflicts.
Letter from Iran
One official's view on why the Islamic Republic still tops America's enemy list.
Strategic Gaming Board
With all-out war too risky to wage, the region's future may hold low-tech conflicts and proxy wars.