WASHINGTON — In swallowing tiny Kuwait, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has both redrawn the political map of the Mideast and thrown to the winds conventional wisdoms that shaped regional policies for decades.
If he goes unchecked, the new "Saddamism" that is already emerging threatens to radicalize the political environment by cultivating a climate of fear and popularizing militancy. The sands are literally shifting daily as the fallout spreads from Tehran to Tel Aviv and as far as Cairo.
Among the new trends: While the international community has demonstrated unprecedented unity in trying to force President Hussein to retreat, the 22-member Arab bloc is in confused disarray. Hussein's surprise aggression has effectively challenged every friend and deepened fears among old foes--often as much by whipping up the potential for internal unrest in several nations as by implicit military threats from Baghdad. The Iraqi leader's defiance of the West may be attractive to many Arabs frustrated by what they see as a lack of gains from policies of deference to the United States.
Many of America's closest allies in the Middle East--and their potential for helping solve regional disputes--have been eclipsed by Hussein's military bravado. Jordan's King Hussein, for example, who has for decades been central to all Western regional peace initiatives, has now been left on the political sidelines. The very concept of moderate monarchies has been endangered.
While the agenda has shifted away from the Palestinian problem, Israel also faces a graver, long-term military threat. And, in one of the most unexpected shifts, the West may now hope that Iran re-emerges as a regional power.
Hussein has so effectively built up Iraq as a dominant regional power during his 11-year rule that even eliminating him would not fully eradicate the new realities.
Militarily, Iraq now has more tanks than Eisenhower, Montgomery and Rommel deployed in World War II and more than Britain and France have today. Economically, it has crude oil reserves estimated at 100 billion barrels--equivalent to current U.S. needs for a generation. Iraq also has one of the world's better-educated populations, with 89% literacy.
After its march into Kuwait, few are likely to again underestimate Iraq's importance in this vital region--particularly its neighbors. Here, through the eyes of those neighbors, is what's at stake in the days, weeks, and years ahead.
Riyadh faces the most immediate threat in the Persian Gulf, and it's not only from Iraq's war-hardened military. Like other sparsely populated gulf sheikdoms, Saudi Arabia faces the danger of internal opposition from budding radical groups who will see the demise of Kuwait's ruling Sabah family as a golden opportunity to challenge the strongest monarchy in the gulf.
The House of Saud is a relative newcomer on the block, after all. The Sabahs, who were selected by leading Kuwaiti clans in 1756 to lead the city-state, had a longstanding claim to legitimacy. In contrast, Ibn Saud founded the Saudi monarchy only six decades ago after seizing territory and consolidating rival tribes.
The House of Saud faces a no-win situation. Calling in a foreign army or allowing a foreign blockade in the gulf to help counter an Iraqi threat would be unpalatable at home. But its credibility would also be undermined if it succumbs and allows Iraq to directly or indirectly absorb Kuwait.
Riyadh's domestic and regional credibility is also undermined by the de facto collapse of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of six sheikdoms formed after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran. Among its basic functions was to protect any member state in the face of a military challenge.
Iraq's aggression against Kuwait has overnight changed perceptions about Iran--mainly in the West, but possibly among some Arab countries as well. For the first time since Islamic revolutionaries forced Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi from the Peacock throne in 1979, Tehran is no longer the chief pariah in the region. Indeed, Washington and Tehran now share a major foreign policy threat.
Historically, Iran has been the counterbalance to Iraqi adventurism, but Tehran's de facto defeat in the eight-year gulf war with Iraq opened the way for Hussein's invasion of Kuwait by leaving Baghdad without serious military challenge in the region.
Ending the Islamic Republic's political and economic isolation, which has in turn limited Iran's ability to rebuild its devastated army, now appears to be an almost attractive option for the West. The theocracy's inability to recoup economically since the war ended--which has fueled domestic discontent--could also make the ruling mullahs more amenable to warmer relations with oil-consuming Western nations.