So, what's going to be the next venue for the Shock and Awe circus, the greatest show on earth? The North Koreans have been clamouring for a piece of the action. They are mightily miffed by the fact that Saddam Hussein has been favoured with two sessions within a dozen years - a matinee performance as well as what is being billed as the last show - while Kim Jong Il, who tries to give the impression of being deadly serious about his weapons of mass destruction, hasn¹t been able to attract anything more incendiary than the occasional rebuke.
Their impatience may be rewarded before long.
Or it might not. You see, the trouble is that Pyongyang might actually have a nuke or three. And Kim, it is presumed, could be crazy enough to push the button if he is pushed into a corner. A similar assessment of Saddam's military capabilities and personal inclinations may actually have led to Iraq being spared its present ordeal.
Besides, in North Korea's case, Beijing's feelings have to be taken into consideration. Chinese sensibilities can, of course, be ignored. But only at a cost that, as the few remaining pragmatists in Washington must realise, would be too high.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, has reached a couple of reasonably logical conclusions after watching the Iraqi version of Shock and Awe. It now knows, as its foreign ministry pointed out last week, "that to allow disarmament through inspections does not help to avert a war but, rather, sparks it". It's best bet, it concludes, lies in "a tremendous military deterrent force".
And you can safely bet your last dollar (or dinar) that similar thoughts must be exercising the minds of military and political leaders in all countries that suspect they may be on the list of possible Shock and Awe venues.
From the circus management's point of view, it makes a certain amount of economic sense to stay in the Middle East. That's where the resources are, after all - North Korea has nothing comparable to offer. And from the neo-conservative point of view, there are a a couple of excellent candidates in the region.
There's the land of the ayatollahs, which has never been amply rewarded for the enterprise it showed way back in 1979, when young radicals took hostage the entire staff of the US embassy in Tehran. A botched American rescue mission the following year can't really be blamed on the Iranians, but that doesn't mean - from the Pentagon's perspective - that they shouldn't be made to pay for it.
But hang on - let¹s not forget that at least some of the Republican neo-cons have a soft spot for the mullahs in Iran. And this doesn't only have to do with what we discussed last week: a convergence of views on ultra-conservative "family values". Two decades ago, when a deal was finally struck on freeing the aforementioned hostages, Republicans surreptitiously persuaded the authorities in Iran to actually delay the release, so that outgoing president Jimmy Carter wouldn't be able to bask in the glow of a diplomatic triumph.
Yes, even serendipity can be orchestrated: the return of the hostages coincided with Ronald Reagan's inauguration. The cynical manipulation of events was reminiscent of how, a dozen years earlier, Republican operatives had prevailed upon the puppet regime in Saigon to scuttle peace negotiations with North Vietnam that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Vietnamese as well as American - but which also would have electorally boosted Richard Nixon's Democratic rival.
Tehran's love-hate relationship with the Reagan administration eventually flowered into the Iran-Contra scandal: in return for the mullahs' help in obtaining the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon, the US secretly sold arms to Tehran, and proceeds from the sale were covertly funnelled to CIA-backed terrorists in Nicaragua.
Reagan's awareness about this process was never conclusively proved, although his devoutly pro-Contra sensibilities were never in doubt. It is equally likely that Poppy Bush, as vice-president and a former head of the CIA, also knew exactly what was going on. It was the relatively small fry who got hauled over the coals - ever so gently, mind you - for following orders. Some of them are members of the Bush administration. And they are now considerably bigger fish.
Whether they are inclined, for old times' sake, to leave Iran out of the Shock and Awe sphere for the time being is a matter for conjecture. But they shouldn't find it too difficult to guide fellow neo-cons in a different direction. Iraq, after all, has other neighbours that are equally likely to set the hawks salivating.
In terms of resources, the biggest prize would obviously be Saudi Arabia. But, although that's where most of the September 11 hijackers came from, there are too many complications involved. Not least, the House of Saud has always been suitably obsequious towards American sources of political and economic power, and there already are US troops posted on its territory.
Syria, on the other hand, poses more of a challenge. Like Iraq, it is run by a Ba'ath party. And, contrary to expectations, Bashar Al-Assad has not appreciably titled towards the West. His father had led Damascus into the US-led coalition ahead of the 1991 confrontation with Saddam, but Bashar has made clear - perhaps once too often - his displeasure over the Anglo-American approach towards Baghdad.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already fired a few shots across the bows - reportedly much to his president's private delight. The necessary coordinates for the target, however, were provided by Israel well before Shock and Awe premiered in Iraq. A spokesman for the Sharon regime alleged its intelligence agencies had evidence that Saddam's WMDs were being moved into Syria.
Perhaps the Israelis knew that no illegal weapons of note would be found in Iraq, and were keen to equip their American allies with a convenient explanation for this shortcoming. No smoking gun? Well, whaddya know, its being concealed somewhere in Syria. Prove it? No problem - we'll find the proof as soon as we launch an invasion. Or soon afterwards, at any rate. Unless, of course, Syria passes on the WMDs to a third party. Iran, maybe? Libya would be better still - after all, there are old scores to be settled with the Colonel.
The Israeli connection is crucial, of course. Iraq is no longer to be feared, and the neo-cons are determined to ensure that the next regime in Baghdad will gaze upon Tel Aviv benignly, perhaps even with a dash of awe. Syria, on the other hand, happens to be the only neighbour with which Israel has not concluded a peace agreement. It must be brought to heel.
However, the next move will depend to a considerable extent on how things turn out in Iraq. The conquest of Baghdad after three weeks of warfare has led, thus far, to disastrous consequences. The looting is symptomatic of a societal breakdown, but it isn't half as alarming as the carnage.
Much of the world tends to be offered a sanitized version of the war: the fireworks are shown from afar, while the havoc they wreak on a multiplicity of ground zeroes rarely gets aired on western TV or reported in most sections of the Anglo-American press. Mothers with their entrails splattered on the floor and kids with their scalps ripped off do not fit the criteria of family entertainment. Yet they are a crucial component of Shock and Awe, an accepted part of the strategy for "liberation".
The preferred images are those of toppling statues and spontaneous street celebrations. Even on the basis of the selective evidence available, it appears that Iraqis are far more keen to exhibit their wrath against Saddam than to welcome their conquerors.
There was never any doubt about the outcome of the war. What took the Anglo-American forces by surprise was that the entire Iraqi army didn't surrender en masse. They also did not realise that many Iraqis would be willing to fight not for Saddam but for their country. They were, needless to say, hopelessly outgunned. Thousands of them are now dead. Don't expect a final body count of Iraqi victims of war - there wasn't one in 1991 either. Every British and American life lost will, of course, be meticulously tabulated.
Could it all have been much worse? Yes, it could. But gratitude for small mercies does not apply to an utterly unnecessary - and thoroughly illegal - war. No one ought to shed any tears over the demise of Saddam's regime. But tyrants worse than him have been toppled in popular upsurges. A precondition for that would have been the lifting of sanctions unrelated to weapons.
Iraq's future looks grim. Now that the worst of the mass murder is over, it's the turn of American corporations to make a killing. The UN's "vital" role in the postwar order will, in all likelihood, be comparable to that of a janitor - and that too if it retrospectively endorses the aggression.
As for Syria, it can't really count on Wolfowitz turning out to be the kind of Paul who'll have an epiphany on to road to Damascus. Only massive protests against the neo-con agenda, particularly in the US, can put an end to what former CIA chief James Woolsey has proudly characterized as World War IV
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