Next hot spot for war both everywhere, nowhere

WBy Leslie Reed (U-WIRE) TUSCALOOSA, Ala.

Who’s next? This is the question now asked in teahouses all over the world. As men puff at their hookahs and play backgammon, they speculate about the next regime likely to be targeted by the United States and its allies once the Iraqi business concludes.

There are two answers to the question: The first is no one, and the second is everyone.

Let us begin with the first answer. There will be no new target because Iraq was a unique case. Although most regional regimes have varying records of brutality, Saddam Hussein’s regime stood in a category all its own: It was the only regime that tried to wipe a member state of the United Nations off the map. It was also the only regime since World War I to use chemical weapons not only against adversaries in a war but also against its own people.

The key reason why Hussein’s regime was unique, however, lies elsewhere. His was a regime that could not develop any mechanism for change. He could play in only two registers: absolute defiance or full capitulation.

We first saw Hussein play the two registers inside the Baath Party. Between 1967 and 1970, he played full capitulation. After that, he played absolute defiance to the point of murdering virtually the whole of the party’s top leadership at the time. Immediately afterward, he provoked a border war with Iran, playing in his absolute defiance register. When he was thoroughly defeated, he began playing full capitulation and in 1975 signed a treaty that gave the Shah of Iran far more than he had dreamed of.

His absolute defiance led him into an invasion of Iran in 1980. His full capitulation saw him beg for cease-fire in 1988. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, an act of absolute defiance. Six weeks later, he was fleeing from Kuwait in full capitulation mode, ready to sign an act of unconditional surrender.

The strategy had worked for three decades. This time it didn’t work because Hussein had wrongly calculated that his French and Russian friends at the Security Council would either prevent war or somehow end it with a cease-fire that would prevent his regime from toppling.

One could think of a dozen ways in which Hussein could have prevented this war and saved his regime for a few more years. But the system he had created lacked the flexibility needed to adapt. There was no way to change his regime’s leadership and policies. It either had to stand as it was or collapse completely.

All other regimes in the region have some mechanism for change and have shown flexibility whenever their survival has been at stake. Even a hermetic regime such as the Baaths in Syria was able to develop an internal mechanism for change, known as “the corrective movement.”

Hussein’s regime was the only one in which there was no possibility of replacing the leader or even murdering him. It could not survive by sacrificing part of itself, including its leader, if need be.

Syria organized its intervention in Lebanon as if it were doing a favor for the Lebanese. Unlike Hussein, who just moved into Kuwait, Hafez Al Assad made sure his troops entered Lebanon as “saviors” with the support of the Arab League, the United Nations and the European powers. The Syrian leaders have often gone to the edge, but never beyond it as Hussein did.

Today, there is absolutely no possibility Syria will allow itself to be pushed into a corner in which the survival of its regime will be at stake. Syria knows how not to believe its own incendiary slogans and how to compromise when it must. Iran, too, has a mechanism for change. The regime can get rid of a few angry mullahs, replacing them with smiling ones, if and when it is necessary.

Whenever its survival has been seriously threatened, the Khomeinist regime has always backed down. Even Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who cultivates his image as a romantic not interested in political power, has never made the foolish mistakes that Hussein repeatedly made. All along the Libyan regime has been wise enough not to believe its own propaganda, and thus not to get involved in a struggle in which it has no chance of surviving, let alone winning.

Now to the second answer: Everyone could be the next target. The last gulf war was aimed at restoring a status quo that had been upset by the Iraqi invasion. The current war is to change the status quo.

Thus all the regimes in the region would have to change themselves, some more than the others, to take into account the realities of a new status quo that will take shape once a new Iraqi regime is established. Those intelligent enough to make changes will have a part in shaping their future. Those who regard change as an enemy will be in for rude shocks.