WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The start of a new year traditionally comes with a certain amount of optimism, giving hope that many things will improve in the 12 months to come. Unfortunately, there is little to be optimistic about as the year 2003 begins to unfold amid rumblings of imminent war in the Levant.
Among the sizzling items on this year's geo-political calendar worth keeping an eye out for, besides the bubbling Middle East, is the increasing tension with North Korea, and of course, the continuing war on terrorism. Not to mention the declining world economic situation, which for the sake of sanity, will remain unmentioned in the rest of this column.
Three major worries already are plenty to fret over, especially in the first week of the new year. Besides, the Bush administration is only geared up to handle two major issues at any one time.
Referring to the potential conflict to come in Iraq and the deteriorating situation following North Korea's admission it will continue to pursue its nuclear program, the Bush administration recently announced the country and its armed forces could successfully conduct, and cope with, a two-theatre war; one in the Middle East, and the other in Asia.
War in the Korean peninsula remains unlikely -- for the moment at least -- even though the communist nation is far closer to possessing weapons of mass destruction than Iraq. Kim Sung-Il, the despotic dictator of the Korean North, is hardly kinder, or gentler, than the despotic dictator of Mesopotamia, having starved, imprisoned and tortured his own people, much along the same lines as the Iraqi leader has. If a competition to name the fiercest despotic dictator were ever to be held, it would be a toss up between Saddam Hussein and Kim.
Having said that, war in Asia, where China is a major contender, remains a far more serious consideration than attacking Iraq to unseat Saddam. Russia, China, Japan and South Korea all are working overtime to prevent the current Korean crisis from reaching the point of no return.
Even President George W. Bush drew a clear distinction in his policies regarding Iraq and North Korea. With Korea, Bush hopes for a peaceful outcome and is looking toward diplomatic avenues for solutions. The same cannot be said of Bush's policy regarding Baghdad, where all roads seem to be leading toward war, as thousands of American combat troops continue to pour into the countries and oceans adjoining Iraq. To date, about 60,000 American troops are in theatre, and another equal number could be deployed within the next few weeks.
As far as Iraq goes, the American president remains belligerent and confrontational, insisting Iraq's strongman remains "a danger to the American people; to our friends and allies," although no direct link has yet been established between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and Iraq.
Kim Jung-Il may well be a member of the "axis of evil," along with Saddam (and the Iranians), yet he does not merit the same treatment as the ruler of Baghdad. Of Saddam, Bush predicted from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, during the year-end holidays in an almost biblical manner that "his day of reckoning was coming."
When that "day or reckoning" comes, as all signs currently seem to indicate, and war with Iraq breaks out sometime in the first quarter of 2003, soon after the U.N. arms inspection team in Iraq hands in its report to the Security Council at the end of January, we should also expect the war on terrorism to take a turn for the worst.
It is worth pointing out that in the event of a renewed Mideast conflict, the second front will not be the clear-cut military demarcation line between the two Koreas, but instead, a shadowy, hazy and hard-to-pin stepped war on the West by fanatic terrorism that will be fueled by Islamic fervor and fed by anger at America's attack on an Arab and Muslim nation.
In that case, the second front may well fracture into a number of multiple smaller fronts, which will be far more difficult to combat, as al Qaida and other fanatical extremist groups will try to take advantage of the situation, stepping up terrorist actions against the West.
As I said, there is not much to be optimistic about. Happy New Year.
(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International. Comments may be sent to email@example.com.)