By the end of its third week it is to be noted that the war between Iraq and Iran is indecisive, damaging -- and unique in these times. This is the first clear example since World War II of a serious and destructive war that has not been inspired, triggered, or released by the great powers. It is a conflict whose roots cannot be traced to the rivalries and conflicts of interests of the United States and the Soviet Union.
This quality of being due entirely to local and regional rivalries identifies the changed nature of today's world scene and also provides a foretaste of future troubles among third-world countries. The plain fact is that individual smaller countries are often now sufficiently rich and well armed to be able to act on their own regardless of or in spite of th preferences of the great powers.
The actions of these smaller countries can damage the interests of great powers. The United States and its friends and allies are damaged by the cutback in the normal flow of oil from the gulf. The Soviet Union is apparently uneasy and unhappy about so much turmoil along its southern frontier which it cannot control and which could disturb the Islamic peoples in the southern part of the Soviet Union. It could also revive a Western military presence in an area where such presence had been recessive.
If Washington and Moscow had been in effective control of the area there would not have been this outbreak of an ancient feud between the Arabs and the Persians.
But Washington and Moscow are not in control. The USA and USSR are still the world's leading military powers. But military power does not suffice in these times to prevent countries like Iraq and Iran from using the wealth they have both obtained from oil to arm themselves and then use those arms against each other.
The essential fact is that this world of today is less dominated by the great powers than it has been over most of the time since World War II. It is a fragmen ted world in which smaller countries have more room for maneuver and for independent action. There is likely to be more of this rather than less in the decade ahead.
Local, regional, and historical elements have been involved in other second-level wars in this era. The Vietnam invasion of Cambodia is an example. The Vietnamese have been an expansive and aggressive people for centuries. The less aggressive peoples in the region, such as the Cambodians, were protected during the French colonial period by the French. Once the colonial era was finished and the United States had gone away, the Viets were free to do what came naturally to them.
But also Vietnam is a client of the Soviet Union, while Cambodia has been sponsored and its limited resistance sustained by the Chinese. There is a substantial overlying element of great-power rivalry in the Vietnam vs. Cambodia war which still continues in a guerrilla phase.
There is also a local and historical element in the fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia. But Ethiopia is a Soviet client. Somalia now looks to the US and other Western powers for help.
Between Wordl War II and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war most war wars involved great-power rivalry. They were proxy wars in which either the Soviet Union or the US or China was involved and interested. The story of events from the Truman doctrine of 1947 to these times has been dominated by the fears Moscow and Washington have of each other. But with the Iraq-Iran conflict we have a war arising out of regional and historical elements with the great powers as helpless bystanders. They are injured but incapable of doing anything because anything they might do would probably make matters worse.
How much more of the same sort of thing is on the horizon?
Among Middle East experts it is noted that the modenization that comes from new wealth, whether from oil as in the Middle East, or more industrial development as in South Korea, tends to be politically destabilizing. And when an existing political system is overturned by internal revolution as in Iran, there can be drastic changes in foreign policy. Iran under the Shah acted as an agent of the United States, which is precisely why Iran under the Ayatollah is so anti-American.
Libya is probably an example of the direction in which some other Middle East countries may go. Its leader is an extreme Islamic nationalist. He came out of the Army, as did Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, and also Presient Sadat. What will happen in Saudi ARabia if and when the present royal family is overthrown? Among the Western experts the assumption is that a revolution is likely there in anywhere from two to five years. Would the new leader be a military man like Colonel Qaddafi in Libya? It seems a plausible possibility. And how would he feel about obliging the United States by increasing the flow of Saudi oil to compensate from the cutoff of Iran and Iraq oil?
The central fact of the matter is that neither Washington nor Moscow desired, promoted, triggered, or released the war between Iraq and Iran. Iran had been an American client. And Iraq used to get its weapons largely from Moscow. But Iraq has been pulling away from Soviet influence. Its trading partners are mostly in the West. Its best customers for its oil are France and Italy. Its leading suppliers are West Germany, Japan, France, and Britain. And Iran is certainly no client of Washington these days.