The United States now has what is known as a date certain: Jan. 15, when, by United Nations resolution, Iraq must get out of Kuwait. Europe, looking at the Middle East from its own perspective, is keeping an eye on what might be called a date uncertain: March. That's when Algeria will probably hold elections.
That Arab country is located just across the Mediterranean from Europe -- a missile's distance away. The use of a missile as a measure of distance is no accident. It was chosen by the foreign minister of Italy, Gianni De Michelis, during a recent Washington visit. Rome, he said, can be reached by a missile from North Africa.
So what? you might ask. The answer is that not until the other day did some prominent Americans start mentioning an aspect of the Gulf crisis that, because of location, has long worried Europe: its impact on the Islamic world, particularly North Africa. De Michelis, during a lunch at The Post, put the matter succinctly: a war with Iraq, especially one that is essentially waged by the United States and European powers, might well trigger a fundamentalist explosion in North Africa.
De Michelis is a man of obvious passion (he wrote a book on Italian discotheques), and, just possibly, he seasons his rhetoric with a bit too much apocalyptic pepper. He talked, for instance, in terms that recalled the Islamic-Christian collision of the Middle Ages, when Arabs, enraptured with newly established Islam, swept most of the Middle East and invaded Europe.
But in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, Adm. William J. Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sort of echoed De Michelis. He said the American-led alliance against Iraq should delay military action until it's clear the sanctions have not worked. A war, Crowe warned, might inflame the Arab world.
Similar warnings have been uttered by others, including -- to me -- a diplomat fresh from 20 years of service in the Middle East and a liberal Israeli who is, among other things, an Arabic-speaking expert on the region. Both men insist any Western incursion into the Arab world would trigger an Islamic explosion -- no matter how many Arab countries are nominal Western allies. They will soon turn and run under domestic pressure, these experts say.
Will the Arab world convulse if the United States and its allies go to war against Iraq? No one can say for sure. By consensus, Egypt is the key. It is the region's most populous country, steadfast in its responsible moderation, signatory to a peace treaty with Israel and -- stretching the term quite a bit -- an emerging democracy. It's in our corner.
But Algeria is also an important country. More radical than Egypt and with impeccable anti-colonial credentials (it won its independence from France by war), it held its first elections since 1962 last June and discovered, to the evident surprise of its governing class, that it had a vibrant Islamic fundamentalist movement. Fundamentalists swept the municipal and regional elections, giving the governing National Liberation Front a terrific political shiner. What happens next -- especially if war comes to the Middle East -- no one knows. And no one knows if fundamentalism could be contained or if all of North Africa would follow. Only one thing is certain in that unpredictable region: "Middle East expert" is a contradiction in terms.
More and more, the crisis in the Gulf is beginning to resemble the crisis in the Balkans that triggered World War I. In 1914, nations lined up and mobilized knowing in some cases that victory in the classic sense was not possible. By 1919, four empires -- Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman -- were gone, two others -- Britain and France -- were severely weakened, and the stage was set for the cataclysm of World War II. The Middle East too is ripe for that sort of explosion. In the end, the very Arab countries we have helped may no longer exist in their present state.
De Michelis, for one, maintains that Italy -- like the United States -- has no choice but to insist that Iraqi aggression not be rewarded, even at the risk of an Islamic convulsion. There can be little argument with that. But the timetable is a different matter. Given what's at stake, including, of course, the lives of Americans, the counsel of those who ask "What's the rush?" ought to be heeded.
War can wait. It can always wait.