There's good reason to believe that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has walked over a cliff and, like some Bugs Bunny villain, is spinning his legs over empty air. (See analyses pages 18-19.)
The results may not show up for some time. But it's clear they will be important far beyond Baghdad.
What's affected? There is likely to be an impact - early or later - in the following areas:
* World oil prices.
* Iraq itself.
* Israeli-Palestinian talks.
* Future relations throughout the Mideast.
Let's examine these one by one, remembering that even solid extrapolations become risky in the shifting political sands of this region.
First, oil. Iraq sits astride what is classically known as the fertile crescent. It also sits amid a petroleum crescent that runs northward from the Saudi Arabian fields through the Gulf states and Iran into Kazakhstan. By some estimates, Iraq's potential reserves are nearly as large as Saudi Arabia's. The advent of a new regime could return a major stream of petroleum to world consumers, thus stabilizing fuel prices longer than now expected. Oil specialists argue that Mideastern supplies are no longer dominant worldwide. Yes. But the vast pool in the lower crescent will be increasingly important by the second decade of the next century.
Iraq itself. Subject for a book. Let's just say here that, more than any other Arab land, Iraq has had prime ingredients for success. Huge reserves of oil for financing development. Plentiful water. Fertile lands adjacent to its two great rivers. A critical mass of population, not a critical mess. (Egypt has too much population, too little oil. Saudi Arabia, too little population and water.)
Also a good education system and heady cultural aspirations. Few people remember that 40 years ago the old regime hired world-famous architects to design Baghdad's university campus, a sports stadium, middle-income housing, and even an opera house by Frank Lloyd Wright (never built). Modern industries - low-, middle-, and high-tech - proliferated in the '60s and early '70s.
Saddam Hussein wrote tragedy all over this renaissance. He started the long, extremely costly war with Iran followed by the short costly war with much of the oil-drinking world. He perverted the growing industrial base by adding ABC (atomic, biological, chemical) war capacity. Iraq marched backward; its people suffered grievously.
Israeli-Palestinian peace. Momentum has already quickened as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat try to outrace the threats from their respective extremists, and provide tangible peace benefits before Palestinian elections this fall and Israeli elections next year. It's no coincidence that peace talks resumed this week after only one day's interruption to remember victims of the latest tragic bus bombing. The defection of Saddam Hussein's two sons-in-law and slow-motion demise of his regime have a more indirect effect here. They help Prime Minister Rabin's cause by strengthening the hand of King Hussein of Jordan (who has given real life to his new peace with Israel), and by exerting new pressure on Syria's President Hafez al-Assad.
Assad, who gained points with the US by supporting its Gulf war effort, will feel left behind if Washington finds a future regime it can deal with in Baghdad. Such a prospect may alter his long footdragging over a land-for-peace settlement with Israel.
Mideast in general. It seems clear that Jordan's King Hussein has a larger picture in mind as he moves to keep ties to Iraq while improving ties with Israel and restoring those with his estranged fellow monarch in Saudi Arabia.
It should be remembered that previous to Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party and several military coups, Iraq was ruled by the Hashemite dynasty, of which King Hussein is the successful survivor. Hussein's artful constitutional monarchy, with its increasing parliamentary power, should provide food for thought in the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the democracy-gone-sour of Iraq.
In short, many interactions of wide importance await the next frames of the film in which Saddam Hussein walks on thin air. As the two analyses on the previous pages indicate, it's hard to forecast just what regime may come after Saddam. His wily maneuvering is likely to be seen in coming weeks as he jousts with the UN Security Council over the embargo that prevents oil sales to refresh has cash and influence. But Washington and its allies are not likely to give in easily on that subject.
A lot is at stake for the long-suffering, high-potential Iraqi people. Much is also at stake for Europe and Japan, which will again depend heavily on Mideast oil in the next century.
More than any other Arab land, Iraq has had prime ingredients for success. Huge reserves of oil for financing development. Plentiful water. Fertile land. A critical mass of population.