Iraq's stunning invasion of Kuwait has, overnight, reordered the power balances of the Middle East from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and reversed budding moves toward moderation and diplomacy in the 22-nation Arab bloc.
Baghdad's lightning attack against the tiny northern state also has confronted President Bush with a set of unpalatable problems--ones that have few appealing options--in a region that remains critical to U.S. national security and economic stability.
After more than a decade of trying, the Baghdad regime of President Saddam Hussein has ruthlessly succeeded in exerting its supremacy and serving notice that Iraq intends to dictate policy throughout the Middle East on everything from oil prices to national borders and political direction.
Unless he is stopped, said Gary Sick, a Persian Gulf specialist and a former National Security Council official, the long-term fate of the Arab world "is like Central Europe in the 1930s."
Iraq's aggression--the first full-scale takeover of one Arab state by another in the post-war period--"is to all intents and purposes the equivalent of Nazi Germany," agreed Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst and author of two books on the eight-year Iraq-Iran War.
Even if Hussein withdraws from Kuwait and the 234-year rule of the Sabah family is restored, all the oil-rich sheikdoms in the Arabian peninsula now know that they risk a showdown with Iraq's war-hardened military if they defy Baghdad's wishes, U.S. officials and private analysts said.
"This is a major setback for the entire region," said Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former naval commander in the gulf. "It sends tremors through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia, our biggest interest in the region, is unable to protect itself."
"Whatever the ultimate outcome (of the invasion), he (Hussein) has already psychologically and politically redrawn the map," a ranking U.S. official commented. "Arab consensus, the traditional mode of operation, is down the tubes."
The invasion, added Sick, "is a fundamental challenge about who is going to determine Arab policy in the years to come. Clearly, Saddam Hussein has identified himself as the leading candidate--on oil, but also on broader political issues."
Like a scimitar slicing through sand, the Iraqi leader has also effectively rendered ineffective the region's four key strategic and economic alliances: the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Cooperation Council. Even mobilizing their collective economic, diplomatic and military resources, the groups are not strong enough to challenge Hussein on any issue.
In the run-up to the invasion, the Iraqi leader duped several of his closest allies, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who went out on a limb after negotiations with Hussein. Mubarak assured Kuwait that Iraq would not invade. "Saddam (as he is commonly called in the region) made a fool of Mubarak," Sick said.
U.S. officials conceded Thursday that the Arab alliances have been left in total disarray.
"There is no restraint in sight," said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist and political science professor at the U.S. Military Academy.
"If Iraq keeps control over Kuwait, directly or indirectly, it doesn't necessarily need to invade anywhere else to exert political power because there'll be the constant threat of the use of Iraqi military force lurking in the background," Cordesman said.
But the impact extends far beyond the gulf, into the Arab heartland and North Africa. "Clearly, with this move, if nothing else happens, Hussein will dominate the Arabian peninsula, and that easily translates as the whole region," a senior U.S. analyst said.
"No one will dare to step out of line," he added.
On Thursday, only three Arab nations--Morocco, Lebanon and Algeria--publicly condemned the invasion. And at the emergency U.N. Security Council session, the vote calling on Iraq to withdraw was unanimous, with the exception of Yemen, the only Arab member of the Security Council. The representative said he had not received instructions from his government.
In a statement whose low-key language contrasted sharply with past condemnations, the Arab League's ambassador to the United Nations, Clovis Maksoud, called the invasion an "unfortunate development." He said that the situation would best be handled through the Arab League without "outside intrusion."
Despite their new cooperative approach to resolving regional conflicts, the United States and the Soviet Union also have limited options, U.S. officials conceded. "Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union can influence Iraq," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.
In terms of international reaction, the Administration official said, "I compare our dilemma to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia (in 1935). The point is that the international community wrung its hands and didn't do anything then."
The best reaction long-term, he said would be "to starve Hussein out by cutting his ability to market oil. But this is going to take more than a couple weeks and a lot of cooperation."
"This is a guy who can't easily be finessed," he said. "But if the international community accepts the invasion as a fait accompli , then this may mark the emergence of the most dangerous man in the world."
U.S. officials and analysts trace the roots of Iraq's invasion to two turning points that, they say in retrospect, should have been warning signs.
The first was Hussein's bid for leadership of the Arab world after the 1978 Camp David accords secured peace between Israel and Egypt. The decision by other Arab governments to isolate Egypt created a leadership vacuum that the Iraqi leader moved quickly to fill.
The second critical point was Iraq's invasion of Iran a decade ago. But in response to that attack in September, 1980, the international community largely turned a blind eye because of fears about the new brand of Islamic extremism championed by Tehran.
"The war was part of Hussein's bid for the golden ring of Arab leadership," said an Administration official. "He thought it'd be over quickly and that he would emerge as the regional power. But he got diverted when the war dragged on."
Over the next eight years, however, Baghdad built up the region's most experienced military machine and acquired an arsenal of deadly new arms, including chemical weapons and missiles. Ironically, Kuwait and other neighboring gulf states bankrolled Iraq's war effort--with an estimated $30 billion--as Hussein quickly spent his nation's foreign exchange reserves and went into debt.
Iraq also got away with massive use of its new military gadgetry. Iran first charged that Baghdad deployed poison gases in 1981, but not until 1984 did a U.N. team verify repeated use of chemical weapons. Even Iraq's use of nerve gas against its own Kurdish population at Halabjeh in 1988, when up to 5,000 civilians were killed, elicited only limited condemnation.
In terms of Kuwait's long-term future, several analysts suggested that Iraq might withdraw its troops, as the Iraqi ambassador to the United States pledged Thursday would happen soon.
"I don't think Kuwait is going to be absorbed by Iraq. The costs to Baghdad are too high. But I think the likely outcome is that Kuwait will be a de facto protectorate of Iraq. That is to say, it will not move without first glancing over its shoulder at Baghdad," Norton said.
"That way, the fiction of Kuwaiti sovereignty will be preserved, but Iraq will still achieve what it's after--fear and trembling throughout the gulf."
An equally important impact of the invasion will be to shift the international focus on the Middle East, which since the end of the gulf war in 1988 has been primarily on the Palestinian problem.
"Israel is saying: 'We told you so. While you've been fixated on the Palestinian problem, the real problem out here is state terrorism,' " said Marvin Feuerwerger, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But he called Israeli involvement "inconceivable."
At the same time, fears about Iraq's intentions could lead to the repair of tense relations between Washington and Jerusalem, strained by a deadlock over terms to end the Arab-Israeli dispute.