In world's hot spots, forward steps

From Pakistan to Sudan to North Korea, problems may be starting to yield to economic imperatives and global pressure.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The dawning new year has been witness to good news from a number of the world's most protracted conflicts and dangerous trouble spots.

Promising developments are suddenly marking the global landscape: between nuclear powers India and Pakistan; in Sudan, where rebels this week reached an agreement with southern rebels that could end Africa's longest civil war; in Libya, which recently announced it would give up its unconventional weapons programs to reenter the community of nations; in US-Iranian relations, with Iran agreeing to international inspection of nuclear sites; and even in North Korea, which this week offered to freeze its nuclear programs.

While foreign-policy experts generally remain cautious about linking these events too closely or about assigning them a common catalyst, they do see some common threads:

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• Economic imperatives. Libya and Sudan, both hobbled by US economic sanctions for promotion of international terrorism, are anxious to clear the way for foreign investment, particularly of US companies in their oil sectors. Iran, which bowed to European Union pressure for inspections, wished to avoid prospective international sanctions. And Pakistan is desperate for improved economic relations with both India and the US.

• Religious terrorism. Many of the countries that are party to one of the "good news" developments have either sponsored or tolerated ambiguous relationships with Islamic extremists, but are now reassessing those ties. Just as Saudi Arabia considers last year's bombings in Riyadh "our 9/11" - a wakeup call that has prompted measures against home-grown terrorists - Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf is seen as motivated in part by two recent attempts on his life by Islamic extremists. And Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, who knows something about international terrorism, appears to prefer the company of the international community to that of religious terrorists who could threaten his own regime.

• The WMD factor. The focus that the US and the world community has put on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction since Sept. 11 has, at the least, forced countries with nuclear programs and unconventional weapons goals to weigh the costs of those pursuits.

Diplomacy vs. military power

Beyond this, foreign-affairs analysts say that the confluence of forward steps will feed Washington's ongoing brouhaha over diplomatic versus military power.

"The debate in Washington is over whether all of this is a product of tough Bush administration policies and the war in Iraq, or whether it's more the result of multilateral diplomatic pressures and things like economic sanctions having an impact," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University.

Adds Lee Hamilton, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, "The hawks argue the case that it is military action that has prompted this movement, while the doves will claim it's the diplomacy and sanctions and the collective tools that have been the most effective. Who knows?" he adds. "I don't think you can identify exclusive factors in this."

Libya, especially, is offered as evidence of the ripple effect of the Bush administration's willingness to topple a regime in Iraq. But at the same time, progress in Sudan is coming after many months spent and miles traveled by US diplomats - and after President Bush, spurred by some US Christians who have taken on the cause of Sudan's Christian south, promised to receive the two sides in the White House once a final peace accord is reached.

A more muscular US role in the world - and in particular Bush's declaration after Sept. 11 that countries would be seen as either with the US or against it - "has forced a lot of countries to make choices," says Jon Wolfsthal, a weapons proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

In a similar vein, the war in Iraq has jarred the global landscape and forced new choices, especially as the US has asked for international backing.

As just one example, the US has moved to improve its relations with Iran, given that country's influence with Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population. That scenario in turn has pushed Saudi Arabia toward fuller accommodation of US demands, in hopes of blunting American cooperation with Tehran that could enhance Iranian influence in the region.

But Mr. Wolfsthal notes that the current examples of progress also suggest that perhaps more could have been accomplished without the distraction of the war in Iraq. Indeed, Georgetown's Kupchan says recent events demonstrate the reemergence of diplomacy and negotiation.

"The biggest change of the last six months is Washington's recognition that in most cases, a negotiated solution is really the only viable alternative," he says. "The war in Iraq is demonstrating just how costly the military route is."

Just scratch deep?

At the same time, some experts are cautioning that what looks like progress might only be scratch deep. "You can attribute some of this to President Bush's foreign policy, but in other cases it could be dangerous to overplay the significance of what's happening," says Max Boot, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Noting that Iran has not committed to stopping its nuclear program and that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in his view continue to play with the fire of home-grown extremists, Mr. Boot says, "It could be that we're seeing a number of balancing games with countries doing as little as possible to reap some benefit."

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