Oil, Trade, Grand Strategy

STRATEGIC planners in the one remaining superpower are getting used to darting eyes in the situation room.

As American officials uneasily monitored Hamas's challenge to the Mideast peace plan that they hope will make oil routes safe into the next century, Beijing's missile challenge to Taiwan erupted.

Then it was back to the Mideast and the puzzle of Iran's first-round elections. Were they a sign that Tehran might begin to move away from the role of peace spoiler?

Next, off to Pacific Asia again, where clumsy, perhaps desperate moves by North Korea perplexed Washington as President Clinton prepared to visit Japan and South Korea.

In part, this tennis-match eye movement reflects Washington's grand defense strategy. It aims to prevent wars in (1) the world's major oil patch (extending from the Persian Gulf to well northeast of the Caspian Sea); and (2) the great commercial and trade area of Pacific Asia.

The rapid-fire shift of attention between these two (and the Balkans, Chechnya, Pakistan, and India) also reflects a string of crucial elections: This week, parliamentary elections in increasingly democratic South Korea. Then, second-round elections in Iran, Israel's watershed vote, India's election with its impact on nuclear missile decisions, and Russia's June test of a possible Communist comeback.

For the moment, though, Washington's focus is on Korea/Japan. North Korea is the self-isolated laggard in the world's fastest enriching region. It also blocks the reuniting of the last of the three nations divided at the end of World War II. (The others: Germany and Vietnam.) Pyongyang may be, in fact, the worst object lesson in Stalinist state dictatorship - a tragically forbidding capital of soulless skyscrapers towering over car-less avenues, with an Orwellian ruler looming over a starving, brainwashed population.

But, if there is any lesson from the collapse of the Stalinist empire, it is this: Ultimately, humans do not have their mental clarity erased by propaganda, however hermetically sealed a nation may seem to be.

Specialists say they are not sure what is happening in North Korea. But a reasonable conclusion may be that people there are beginning to think for themselves and resist. So are those Iranians who are voting against the mullahs' sealed-off world.

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