When Pan Am 103 went down over Lockerbie in 1988, it took my friend Berndt Carlsson, a Swedish diplomat and former chairman of the Socialist International who had become the United Nations' special rapporteur for Namibia. So active had he been in working to free Namibia from South African apartheid and occupation that some people speculated on a South African role in the atrocity. As so often is the case, this speculation was useless because it was so rational. Those who put bombs on civilian aircraft usually don't much care who is on board; their point is made by the pile of random corpses in the wreckage. (It's amazing to me that one still has to argue this point with those searching for nobler motives: The explosive is just as likely to be on Noam Chomsky's or Michael Moore's flight, and one day they may awaken to this self-evident fact.)
Just as I think that Osama Bin Laden made the greatest conceivable error by demolishing the World Trade Center and thereby retarding the cause of jihad to an incalculable extent, so I think that his followers have repeated the mistake in Indonesia, Turkey, and perhaps above all in Saudi Arabia. Three years ago, sympathizers of al-Qaida controlled the government of Afghanistan, heavily influenced the ruling circle in Saudi Arabia, and were in a good position to take over the Pakistani state from within. They were also being sought out for meetings by the regime in Baghdad. Now they have lost Afghanistan, are being hunted in Saudi Arabia, are being killed in the rat holes of Iraq, and stand little if any chance of seizing power in Islamabad. Their charismatic leader is almost certainly dead or at least incapacitated: Even the pretense that "communiqués" are coming from him has practically dried up. It may sound like a callous thing to say, but Bin Laden did us all a favor by showing his fangs in that way and then neglecting to have a Plan B.
Col. Qaddafi, though, has lived to rue the mistake he made with Pan Am. He started the grinding of an inexorable machine, beginning with the deceptively modest processes of Scottish law, and he now stands before the world as a gibbering and whimpering psycho, forced to pay blood money and to beg for leniency. The latest development is the best of all: In a sort of reverse of the pre-emptive strike, he has agreed to disclose and destroy all his stocks of unlawful weaponry.
The hawks are quite plainly right to say that this sudden tribute by vice to virtue is a direct consequence of Operation Iraqi Freedom. So is the new readiness by the mullahs of Iran to accept international inspections. It might even be true to say that the supposed failure to find WMDs in Iraq is a factor in this welcome surrender. I know I am having it both ways here because I actually believe that Saddam Hussein was concealing illegal weapons and was trying to buy them off the shelf from Kim Jong-il, but look at it from the point of view of a rattled and ramshackle despotism like the Libyan or Iranian one. (Wow—look what happened to Saddam when he was accused of fooling around with weapons and inspections and U.N. resolutions. And we know that we do have undeclared stocks. Is it worth the risk?) One can only be impressed at this triumph of reasoning over ideology. If riff-raff like this can be so convinced of our resolve, then we really must make sure that our resolve is as steely as they think it is.
There's certainly an element of time-buying and calculation in both cases, but the compromise over WMD can, if properly handled, act as a curtain-raiser for regime change in both societies. Iranians and Libyans are not fools, and they have increasing access to non-state media. They know that their boastful and pious leaders have been cringing and conceding. In a more than subliminal way, this presages the end of governments that are bankrupt in other ways as well. In the Middle East perhaps more than in any other region at present, people are acutely sensitive to which is the winning and which is the losing side. The mullahs have run Iran into the ground over two decades, and Qaddafi has been in power since I was an undergraduate. Their rule is condemned by actuarial calculations as well as by moral and political ones, and it's now quite possible to envisage a future without them. The tipping point in all this is, and has been, and will be seen to have been, the liberation of Iraq.
There are two things that the Bush administration could do to push this process along. It's become obvious that Pakistan has been involved not only in pirating nukes of its own, but in helping to proliferate them via North Korea and elsewhere. Until September 2001, indeed, it had overt Talibanists among its nuclear scientists, and nobody in Washington seemed to find this alarming. (If you want to be alarmed, look up Sy Hersh's New Yorker piece on how close Pakistan came to launching a first strike on India during the Clinton administration.) The greatest act of public diplomacy that the Bush team could now perform would be a high-level initiative to detoxify and denuclearize the Kashmir question. This is a far more dangerous and urgent question than Palestine. (Indeed, al-Qaida probably originates more from the Kashmiri swamp than it does from the Middle Eastern one.)
Then it would be nice if Gen. Ariel Sharon was asked to declare his own stocks of nuclear weapons and was questioned rather closely about what contribution they make to regional security. For a start, where was Israel thinking of using such devices and under what circumstances? In the war against jihad, Israeli nuclear weapons are even more useless than our own. Precision-guided munitions, which take out the tyrant and spare the population, are the wave of the future.
Not to end on too festive or seasonal a note, but the disarming of three rogue regimes in under one year isn't bad. If Howard Dean really believes that we are no safer than we were on Sept. 11 (and I presume he can't literally mean that the removal of the Taliban made no difference), then it's time he said what he would have done differently.