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'Rogue' States Are Overrated

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - The notion of ''rogue'' states is simple and appealing. It only needs one madman/evil genius to get hold of some crude chemical, biological or nuclear weapon or the services of a top computer hacker to threaten the security of the mighty United States.

It is a handy notion, too, now that the ''evil empire'' of the Soviet Union is no more and China has yet to become a credible threat to U.S. strategic dominance. It sounds reasonable to divide the world into ''civilized'' states to be entrusted with American-designed advanced missile defense systems and the ''others,'' the actual or potential rogues.

The rogue state theory provides a focus for defense needs that is more likely to attract political support than rationales which emphasize the demands of multiple small wars and interventions.

Historically, multiple minor engagements have been the lot of imperial peacekeepers, a not ignoble role that the United States may be increasingly called upon to fulfill. It is unglamorous and requires traditional military virtues of perseverance more than high-tech wizardry. However, the ''rogue'' notion is politically more appealing.

But are the rogue states likely to risk their own annihilation just to prove the righteousness of some madcap leader? Is there a Jim Jones out there running a real state and ableto persuade his nation to follow him to the grave? Maybe there is.

But the list of current rogue states reveals a very different picture. The main list includes North Korea, Libya, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Failed states in Africa are not on the list, though one might suppose that their collapse as organizations might make them more likely to spawn messianic figures financing crazy schemes with stolen gems.

The above six rogue states have one striking facet in common: their durability. They may be ruthless, vicious, actually or potentially aggressive. But they all clearly excel in one respect: their own survival.

Of the six, the youngest regime is Iran's revolutionary Islamic republic, which is now 22 years old and evolving toward a more open and plural society.

Even at the height of the ayatollahs' revolutionary fervor, Iran was mainly concerned to protect its revolution from outside attack rather than spread terror internationally. (Support for Hezbollah can hardlybe described as more rogue-like than the Reagan administration's support for the Nicaraguan contras).

Fidel Castro's Cuba is an illustration of how rogue status can itself be harnessed, via the nationalist sentiments of small na-tions which take pride in being bullied by giant neighbors, to maintain a hold on power for 41 years.

North Korea's father and son regime may take the prize for brutality, but its victims have all along been other Koreans. It may still threaten the South, but for many years now the regime has been mainly concerned with its own survival.

Its nuclear and missile developments needed to be countered, but they were not the acts of a rogue state liable to do wild things. They were calculated and achieved at least some of their diplomatic goals. Curiously, the country most vulnerable to the North - the South - is less worried than Washington about Pyongyang's missile developments.

President Hafez Assad of Syria may be a thorn in the side of the Israelis, but it has been an underlying pragmatism, combined with ruthless treatment of potential enemies at home, that has kept him in power for three decades.

Syria's tactics against Israel no more make it a rogue state than Israel's use of political assassination or bombing of civilians as a weapon of war makes it a rogue state. Both countries are engaged in a limited regional struggle using methods long practiced in similar circumstances by Western nations.

Libya's support at various times for ''liberation'' movements ranging from Ulster to Mindanao is irritating to others, but no morea threat to world peace than West-friendly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia's funding of the Taleban or of Kashmiri separatists. Colonel Moammar Gadhafi may seem an eccentric as well as dangerous figure, but he has survived in power for 31 years by method not madness.

As for Saddam Hussein, in power 21 years, even in 1991 he showed no sign of losing his reason or becoming suicidal. He is still there because he can calculate, as well as kill his enemies. Conventional weapons of war keep him in place - indeed could have dislodged him altogether in 1991.

The fact is that the rogue states do not directly threaten the United States or other major powers. If anything, they threaten neighbors which are either unlikely to benefit from American missile shields or would be better off with conventional alliances.

Of course, some terrorist actions will from time to time hit the United States. The Oklahoma bombing just might have been caused by Osama bin Laden not by homegrown fanatics. But, as Britain and Spain have learned, occasional terror acts cause death but are not a threat to democracy or the state.

Paranoia about alleged rogue states - which, it transpires, are mostly Muslim - can too easily either become occasion for illiberal trends or detract from ongoing, conventional military needs, whether the challenge is to be able to respond to Saddam's aggression or to impose peace on Haiti.

That is not to dismiss altogether the dangers of advanced societies being severely disrupted by computer, chemical or other ''alternative'' warfare, nor for old nuclear states to relax their guard against newer ones.

But individuals and shadowy nongovernmental groups are where the threat lies, rather than with those rogue regimes so expert at their own survival.