Iraq's fall redraws the playing field

U.S. victory over Hussein may pressure other foes for better -- or worse

War In Iraq

April 20, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Having destroyed Saddam Hussein's regime in less than a month of fighting, President Bush is looking at the rest of the world with a sterner eye.

Administration officials hope America's decisive victory in Iraq will jolt adversaries around the globe into recognizing what Secretary of State Colin L. Powell calls a "new dynamic," in which the United States will not tolerate the threat of rogue nations seeking the world's deadliest weapons.

Early signs suggest that one of those states, North Korea, has gotten the message. Bush also wants to remake the Middle East into a more tolerant, hopeful and prosperous place, steer Israelis and Palestinians away from violence and terror, and fix an ineffective international system for tracking and eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

And he will have to do this facing a hard-to-measure terrorist threat to U.S. citizens, knowing the American public has little stomach for serial wars, and having alienated public opinion in much of the world with a fearsome pre-emptive attack on another country.

Meanwhile, he has assumed the burden of making the future for 23 million Iraqis better than the past, a burden America will have to carry well beyond the president's current term.

"Shock and awe" may not have lived up to its advance billing as a display of air power sufficient by itself to frighten Iraqi forces into submission, but the administration hopes the bombing campaign has an effect on other states stockpiling chemical and biological weapons and seeking to join the nuclear club.

"I think it sends a message that when the president of the United States says that all options are open in his determination to rid countries of weapons of mass destruction, that he is serious about it," said John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

The first war launched under Bush's doctrine of pre-emption already appears to have had a sobering effect on another member of Bush's "axis of evil" half a world away.

North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, who had defiantly broken out of international controls over his country's nuclear weapons development, last week softened his refusal to join in multicounty talks aimed at ending that government's pariah status, agreeing talks that included China as well as the United States.

"I'm sure the war also was noticed and lessons drawn from the war," Powell told PBS's Newshour last week, in reference to North Korea.

Bush has responded to Kim with some flexibility of his own, dropping the U.S. demand that any negotiations with North Korea must also include the neighboring countries most threatened: Japan and South Korea.

With talks slated to begin as soon as this week, North Korea has raised the stakes. On Friday, Pyongyang issued an ambiguous statement suggesting that it may already have begun reprocessing spent fuel rods, a step that would give it the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The United States has said any move toward reprocessing would be "a very serious matter." Some interpretations of the North Korean statement indicated it may just have been a threat, but it's a sign that dealing with Pyongyang's Stalinist regime won`t be smooth.

In Iraq's immediate neighborhood, the reaction to the war is still more complicated. The war has uncorked a combustible mix of humiliation among Arabs dismayed at Iraq's quick collapse, suspicion about America's long-range intentions in the Middle East, and insecurity among autocratic regimes that haven't changed hands in four decades.

Far from a more peaceful region, a number of analysts fear a rise in terrorism to shake off a new Western occupier of Arab land; renewed determination in Iran, and perhaps other countries, to acquire nuclear weapons, and greater repression by regimes seen by their people as too close to the United States.

The war on terrorism

Although the Bush administration says the connection among rogue regimes, weapons of mass destruction and terrorists constitutes the greatest security threat to the United States, there is little sign that the war in Iraq achieved much in solving the problem. No quantities of chemical or biological weapons have been found, and evidence of Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaida terrorists remains fragmentary.

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain unknown, and the war on terrorism continues. "We're not out of the woods yet," a counterterrorism official said.

Arab reforms

Even before the Iraq war, the United States embarked on a campaign to address the faults that Arabs themselves have found in their societies -- an absence of political and economic freedom and the need to begin empowering women.

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