WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- From Tunis to Tripoli to Cairo to Damascus what seems real one day is no longer the next. Policymakers in Western capitals agree that Syria President Bashar Assad's suppression of dissent with a toll of 6,000 dead so far -- and still climbing -- makes him the war criminal.
This clear good-versus-bad script is suddenly blurred as al-Qaida's sympathizers showed up in the ranks of pro-Western rebels fighting for the overthrow of Assad. A new player: Al-Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade began fielding suicide bombers.
In Libya, liberation from Moammar Gadhafi's 40-year tyranny gradually morphed into inter-tribal warfare. Salafist extremists were in the mix. Libyan ambassadors abroad are receiving contradictory instructions from different government ministries in the hands of warring tribes.
Thousands of Russian surface-to-air missiles purchased by Gadhafi's regime and other weapons lay abandoned in the desert, available to any terrorist group with plans to down commercial aircraft anywhere in the world.
In the Libyan capital, Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former al-Qaida chief turned over to British intelligence by Gadhafi and tortured under the secret 2004 U.S.-British rendition program, has produced incriminating documents from the late dictator's intelligence headquarters.
Belhadj has a strong hand to play. He's the commander of the "Tripoli Military Council," the revolution's top military man in the capital city and former head of the "Libyan Islamic Fighting Group," a branch of al-Qaida. He's suing Britain's MI6.
In Cairo, a new Parliament dominated by fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood, with 47 percent of the seats, appeared shaken while trying to project a moderate image for their Western interlocutors.
Salafists, or Muslim extremists who rooted for the late Osama bin Laden, emerged from the most recent ballot count with 25 percent of the new Parliament. Together, with 72 percent of Parliament, these two branches of Islam will dominate constitutional reform.
Liquor, women with uncovered heads or in swimsuits on the beaches of the Mediterranean and Red Sea, will be officially banned. But if enforced, the tourist trade, about 20 percent of Egypt's national income, will shrink unpredictably.
As the Arab world continued to unravel, the Iranian nuclear crisis had a near-monopoly of front-page news. Clandestine hits between Iran and Israel have become commonplace. Cyberterrorism is evidently Israel's preferred form of action to disrupt Iran's covert nuclear program. Iran's riposte seems to be car bombs against Israeli officials and their friends.
For many Israelis, there is little doubt that Iran will attempt to wipe out the Israeli nation in a single strike against Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Similar paranoia gripped the United States in the late 1940s and '50s.
Israel's three principal intelligence chiefs who retired last year -- Mossad, Shin Bet and the military -- have opined in print and on television news they don't believe the theocratic dictatorship in Qom or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran have any such intention. They know that a single nuke aimed at Israel would trigger massive retaliatory blows from Israel -- and would leave them without a country.
There are several generations of Americans and Israelis who have no recollection of the game of nuclear chicken played by Russia and China after World War II. In 1957, Mao Zedong said China could survive and prevail in a nuclear war.
Mega death for Mao was a shortcut to defeating capitalism and its imperial powers. He claimed he wasn't afraid of atomic warfare. China then had a population of 600 million extremely poor people.
Even if 200 million were killed by American atomic weapons, Mao concluded, 400 million would survive and China would still be a major power while the United States would lose its reason for existing.
Chinese hyperbole saw a new beautiful civilization growing on the ashes of imperialism.
During China's "Great Leap Forward" (1958-60), 43 million died. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), one of Mao's interpreters estimated 10 percent of a population of about 800 million had been killed. All told, 123 million were killed by order of the "Great Helmsman."
Throughout the 1940s and '50s, until his death in March 1953, Stalin repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation. Analysts at the time said Stalin believed he could destroy the United States and inherit Europe intact.
For Stalin, 20 million people "purged" during his bloody dictatorship (1929-53) was a statistic. Another 20 million were killed in World War II (including 11 million soldiers).
In the light of wholesale slaughters during the first half of the 20th century, including 6 million Jews in Hitler's concentration camps, and the nature of Stalin's and Mao's dictatorships, it was normal for Pentagon "tank" and academic think tanks to be debating first- and second-strike capabilities. These became the stuff of doomsday debates, which today appear anachronistic and irrelevant.
Not for Israel. One nuclear missile obliterating Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would be a global catastrophe. Israel would survive but Iran would cease to exist as a nation hours later. Israel's fighter-bombers with air-to-air refueling tankers have been on instant standby for months. Violating the air space of other countries wouldn't even be a consideration.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- despite the counsel of three outgoing Israeli intelligence chiefs and the opinions of three U.S. former CENTCOM commanders -- says Israel cannot wait for Iran to produce its first nuclear weapon.
So what happens when Netanyahu calls U.S. President Barack Obama and says, "Mr. President, I am calling to inform you I have ordered our air force to take out three key nuclear targets in Iran"?
Obama knows the United States will automatically be drawn in to the conflict as Iran unleashes its asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities up and down the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz through which pass 20 percent of the world's oil consumption.
The U.S. Congress, where the American Israel Public Affairs Committee wields decisive influence, will then vote a resolution of support for Israel.
Obama's freedom to maneuver diplomatically will be sharply curtailed.
The October surprise: The United States will be in its third war in 10 years.