AS the first real challenge to global security in the post cold-war era, the Persian Gulf crisis could - erroneously - set the tone for the future course of North-South relations. Fears that Iraq's behavior is somehow representative of the third world, and assertions that the United States reaction must therefore be precedent-setting, are misguided and incorrect. In fact, no other third-world region has a large ``bully'' state poised to launch an all-out invasion of a smaller, weaker neighbor, and certainly few other areas in the world represent so vital a strategic interest to the US as to prompt the deployment of over 400,000 troops.
Given the unlikely resurgence of these two conditions simultaneously, there is no need for the US to gear up its foreign policy to prepare for ``one-two-three Iraqs.''
As to the first condition, five characteristics endemic to the Middle East make it more combustive than other developing regions:
1. Power rivalries. Several middle-sized powers are vying for hegemony over the region. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran are all armed to the teeth, as is the region's thinly populated but wealthiest potentate, Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere in the third world, regional powers are unlikely to forcibly annex their neighbors, either because they enjoy virtually unchallenged supremacy (Brazil, Nigeria), or they face industrial powers that trim their sails (Mexico, Libya, Turkey). Even in the potentially volatile case of South Asia, an aroused India is more likely to settle for less definitive goals with Pakistan, such as an advantageous settlement of the dispute over Kashmir.
2. Development failures. Economically, much of the Mideast region is slipping backward, as poverty deepens, youths are jobless, and the gap between the wealth of the rest of the world and its own hopeless indigence widens daily. Politically, the resurgence of militant Islamic fundamentalism is a response to the illegitimacy of the ruling autocracies that have been unable to create either economic growth or sufficient avenues for political participation.
In contrast, the prosperity of the four Asian tigers - South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong - has convinced many in the third world that integration into global trading and financial systems is the road to travel. Particularly inspiring, Latin America is demonstrating that democracy is not inconsistent with bold economic reform.
3. Military buildup. The extraordinary level of arms inventories in the Middle East gives several states the ability to project massive firepower against their neighbors. Egypt, Iraq, Israel, and Syria, for example, all have more main battle tanks in their inventories than either Britain or France. This annual regional expenditure on arms of 18.5 percent of GNP contrasts starkly with the rest of the developing world, where, for example, 1.5 percent and under 3 percent are spent by Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, respectively.
4. Oil. The curious situation in which one commodity is so highly concentrated, politicized, and strategically valued is not found in any other area of the developing world. Yet despite this common commercial interest, pricing conflicts and resentment among smaller countries and oil sheiks have splintered the region, a rift that Saddam Hussein has been able to exploit.
5. Israel. Finally, nowhere else is there an outpost of European culture that is occupying holy lands also claimed by local populations.
AT the same time, no where else on the geostrategic map does one region combine two decisive variables - oil and Israel - that provoke such a drastic response from the US. Indeed, even at the height of the cold war, the several wars fought between India and Pakistan, and India and China, did not elicit an American military intervention.
This is not to say that limited wars with limited objectives will not continue to be waged in the third world, and certainly there will be instances when the US will act to protect threatened interests. But these incidents will not trigger the deployment of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers. Rather, the renewed emphasis seen in the Iraqi case on multilateral coalitions, economic sanctions, and diplomatic efforts through the United Nations - so skillfully orchestrated by the Bush administration - are all policy tools that will be appropriate elsewhere as well.
US action in the Gulf should thus not be founded on a belief that the Iraqi aggression is representative, either for future third-world behavior nor as justification for use as ``test ground'' in the creation of a new world order. Iraq is the exception to the rule on both counts, and we do the rest of the developing world - and ourselves - a great disservice by painting it otherwise.