Text size

The nuclear smuggling ring that came to light recently, centered on a Pakistani scientist passing its know-how, technology, and material to Iran, Libya and North Korea, is a prime example of evolving strategy in the post-Soviet era of American hegemony. In the world of yesterday, security strength and threats to it were measured in tanks, planes, and scientific and industrial infrastructure. Today's threat is a milling machine that can produce centrifuges for enriching uranium from obsolescent sketches.

Weapons systems once deemed primitive, like shoulder fired missiles and artillery rockets, are now strategic threats. The production of explosives, which in the era of the "big" wars took place in secure factories that had engineers and chemists and safety regulations, now requires only acetone, hydrogen peroxide, a cellar in Jenin, and instructions downloaded from the Internet. This is all it takes to kill hundreds in suicide bombings and to influence balances of power and historic processes.

The changes indicate a deeper process. In the era of an omnipotent "global cop," tanks and planes are worthless against American military superiority. A show of weakness, a failure to dominate, and evasion of responsibility are more effective than militant contests.

Like the economy, strategy is also undergoing "privatization" and small countries outsource - preferring to act through ostensibly independent people and organizations, rather than risk angering the American giant. The reason is simple - it's more difficult to deter private groups than sovereign states.

The examples need no elaboration. Al Qaeda, an organization that owns no territory and bears no government accountability, succeeded in doing serious damage to America, and continues to operate and to terrify. Saddam Hussein, whose regime was a shining example of centralization, took on the superpower and was answered by invasion, desposition, and a humiliating probe of his hair and teeth.

Pakistan "is having difficulty" gaining control over extremist Muslims, and President Pervez Musharraf is threatening nuclear and terrorist chaos should he fall from power. In these circumstances, Washington is willing to accept at face value the tales of a "private initiative" by smugglers of nuclear technology, and has not even expressed any displeasure at the clemency Musharraf bestowed on the "rebellious" scientist Abd al-Qadir Khan. The main thing is that the friendly general should survive.

Syria operates along the same lines. Rather than face direct Israeli and American pressure, it prefers to arm Hezbollah and shelter Palestinian terror organizations, all the while renouncing their activities. Yasser Arafat opted for security anarchy, which makes it easier for him to disavow the terrorism perpetrated by "independent organizations."

Israel has adopted a successful privatization strategy in the settlements - it turned a blind eye to dozens of settlement outposts set up seemingly against the law, and succeeded in preserving them, despite American pressure. But when it tried to build the separation fence deep in the heart of the territories in an open government-supported initiative, it came up against international disapproval and landed in diplomatic hot water.

The Israeli war on terror has also been privatized, from the choice to strike at Palestinian ruling institutions "to pile on the pressure," to the IDF's personal search-and-destroy campaign against Hamas, Jihad and Tanzim activists.

The evolution of strategy may also be perceived in the American response. Bush Senior's plan after 1991 for weapons control in the Middle East tried to limit conventional weapons sales, suspend missile programs, and close the Dimona reactor.

The plan unveiled last week by Bush Jr. presents an entirely different approach. It focuses on weapons of mass destruction and concerns that such weapons might fall into terrorist's hand, ignoring entirely weapons like tanks and planes. Bush is tailoring different ways of handling different regimes to replace a uniform approach to all. He plans to hunt "pirate" nuclear dealers as common criminals, instead of making do with attacking the usual suspects - Libya, Iran, and North Korea.