Beyond Baghdad

While still wrangling over how to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration is already looking for other targets. President Bush has called for the ouster of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Now some within the administration--and allies at D.C. think tanks--are eying Iran and even Saudi Arabia. As one senior British official put it: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."

In a statement broadcast into Iran in mid-July, Bush promised unspecified U.S. "support" to "Iran's people" as they "move toward a future defined by greater freedom." And early this month a top Bush aide said the current regime--both the elected government of reformist Mohammed Khatami and the unelected mullahs who dominate public life--was ineffectual. Speaking to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, National Security Council aide Zalmay Khalilzad did not call outright for a regime change in Iran, but didn't argue when a questioner asserted that this was the policy's aim.

Richard Perle, chairman of Bush's Defense Policy Board, recently invited a controversial French scholar to brief the outside advisers on "taking the Saudi out of Arabia." When word leaked to the press, the Bush administration strongly denied it wanted to oust any Saudis. Still, some insiders continue to whisper about the possibility. Syria and even Egypt are now under discussion in neoconservative circles, along with North Korea and Burma.

"The thinking in the administration is really evolving toward the idea of promoting democracy and regime change--an overhaul of the Arab and Islamic world, rather than dealing with it as it is," says Kenneth Katzman, a leading expert on Iran who works with the Congressional Research Service. Some military strategists worry that the talk of overthrowing other nations could jeopardize any invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair, the only foreign leader who might join in a U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, is asking tough questions. "He wants to know a lot more about what the administration's real agenda is," says a top Blair aide. Some Iraq invasion scenarios under review have U.S. carriers steaming into the narrow Persian Gulf--a place where they'd be vulnerable to missile strikes from Iranian shore batteries. Richard Murphy, a former top State Department official dealing with the Mideast, warns the U.S. could lose Iran as a needed ally. "They will be pretty cautious about putting their hands firmly in ours, knowing we have a knife headed for their back."


An Explosive Start

Pity the 17 people left dead and 67 injured by several Bogota bomb blasts last Wednesday. And too bad for Alvaro Uribe Velez: the explosions occurred minutes before he was sworn in as president of Colombia. Unsurprisingly, authorities suspect Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Although the group has not claimed responsibility, FARC's involvement would shock no one, least of all Uribe, who ran for office swearing to bring peace to war-torn Colombia. That will be no easy task. In recent months, FARC has stepped up its wide-ranging offensive with attacks on infrastructure and urban centers around the country. More than 60 people have died in military exchanges between FARC and right-wing paramilitaries in the past two weeks. And most experts believe the first month or so of Uribe's presidency will be as bad, if not worse. Says political analyst and former national-security adviser Alfredo Rangel: "FARC's aim is to increase the conflict in the coming months through sabotage of the nation's economic infrastructure. Damaging the economic lifeline of the nation would mean less money for the war effort." But if Washington follows through on its recent pledge to use U.S. military aid to Colombia for counterguerrilla operations instead of restricting it to anti-drug ops, he stands a chance. If it doesn't, Uribe's--and Colombia's--road to peace will be paved with problems.


Some Soul-Searching

Latin Americans have long considered Argentina their super-arrogant neighbor. But with Argentina's economy in the tank, many Argentines are seemingly eating humble pie and recognizing their faults. Consider the new ad by the Argentine Advertising Council as part of a "moral values" campaign: two Argentines, vacationing abroad, chat with a waiter about what their country is famous for. Football and tango, they say. "And putting their hand in the till," suggests the waiter. There are other instances of self-reflection: In June, when Uruguayan President Jorge Battle tearfully apologized for declaring that Argentines were "a bunch of crooks," polls showed that roughly half of Argentina agreed. And in July, when U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill suggested that any money lent to Latin America would end up in Swiss bank accounts, hardly a peep was heard from the people of Argentina. (Their neighbors to the north, Brazil, demanded--and received--an apology.) Says Jorge Irazu, head of the Argentine Advertising Council's campaign, "Argentina has an image of being a massive, rich country, but the economic crisis has demolished a lot of myths." What's next? An apology from Maradona for his blasphemous use of the Hand of God?


Putin and His Pals?

Recently, Russia's biggest business tycoons have had every reason to feel confident. They've been banking profits from high world oil prices that have propped up their raw-materials-based empires. And they've enjoyed the friendship of President Vladimir Putin, who has promised them an even playing field as long as they abstain from the active political involvement that typified their kind in the 1990s. According to reliable accounts, Putin even promised not to pursue the questionable privatization deals that enabled the oligarchs to build up their business empires under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Small wonder, then, that a recent Kremlin plan has left the oligarchs in shock. Two weeks ago a group of Putin aides reportedly suggested the renationalization of oil and gas resources--the foundations of most of the oligarchs' fabulous wealth. Two of Russia's most prominent tycoons headed straight for the Kremlin to protest. Putin immediately denied the reports, leaving some observers to speculate that the whole thing might have been a ploy to make the tycoons cough up money for the government's war chest in upcoming parliamentary elections. That may be, but one could hardly blame Putin for wanting to cut the tycoons down to size. According to a new report by Western economists from the investment bank Brunswick UBS Warburg, 85 percent of Russia's private economy is now controlled by a mere eight holding companies--all associated with one of the tycoons. Putin may have to turn these friends, at least, into foes if he means to transform Russia into a genuinely competitive market economy.


Arms for Sale

It seems there's an upside to the recent economic downturn: in the past two years, as the bubbles of big bucks have exploded, global arms sales have plummeted, according to a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. Last year developing nations bought about $16 billion in weapons, compared with almost $30 billion in 2000. The reason is simple: economic hard times crimp budgets for buying arms. The report held a few surprises--and many no-brainers. PERISCOPE offers a pop quiz of highlights:

1. Who was the biggest arms dealer in the past eight years? (Hint: United States of A... )

2. Which developing nation bought the most last year? (Hint: Israel is a developing nation?)

3. Which developing nation bought the most weapons over the past eight years? (United Arab Emirates? Good guess.)

As the findings show, arms sales are at the lowest level since 1997. And that's good news for some.


Looking For a Link

Top Bush officials, eager to bolster their case for an invasion of Iraq, want the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to give them more ammunition. Last week Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, an Iraq hawk, summoned two FBI officials to brief him on claims by Czech intelligence that 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met last year in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Wolfowitz wanted the FBI to endorse the Czech account to show ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda. But when FBI counterterrorism chief Pat D'Amuro and a case agent expressed skepticism, Wolfowitz vigorously challenged them, says one source. The sole evidence for the alleged meeting is the uncorroborated claim of a Czech informant. The informant says he saw Atta meeting with an Iraqi spy on April 9, 2001. But the FBI can't find any evidence--such as airline or passport records--that Atta was in Prague that day. (The bureau has found credit-card receipts putting Atta in Florida two days earlier.) The case agent called the meeting "unlikely." But under Wolfowitz's grilling, the agent finally agreed it was "possible," because the FBI can't account for Atta's whereabouts on the day in question. A Defense Department official says Wolfowitz wasn't trying to pressure the bureau. "He believes it's important to get clarity about what we know and what we don't know," said the official.


It's Only Natural

Dear NEWSWEEK: I'm dating a biologist. I want to study up and impress him, but all the textbooks are so dull. Why can't science be... sexy?

--Bored With Bio

My dear, what you need is "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," 234 delightful pages of scientific wisdom dispensed by biologist Olivia Judson in the guise of Tatiana, an Ann Landers-style agony aunt in a lab coat. "I've noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first," writes a praying mantis. The good doctor responds: "Some of my best friends are man-eaters," then proceeds to explain why that's not literally true, while assuring the insect that her snacking is as natural an aphrodisiac as candlelight and Barry White tunes.

The "deviant lifestyles" detailed in Dr. Tatiana's fictional column by far eclipse anything we stodgy humans do. There are hermaphroditic sea hares who wonder why everyone else doesn't have orgies all day, an elephant whose nether regions have turned green and a spoon worm who's accidentally inhaled her husband. If your tastes are more ascetic, there's also a talk-show transcript starring a unicellular critter who--horrors!--forgoes sex altogether in favor of cloning. Though the book is chock-full of technical footnotes, Judson says it's aimed at general readers "who are interested in sex," which should make it a quick best seller. Easy to understand, accurate and hilarious, it's sex education at its best. Your boyfriend will be thrilled. Just don't get too inspired and bite his head off.


Sex, Lies and Soderbergh

You can never second-guess Steven Soderbergh. Having reinvented himself as Hollywood's hottest director with "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven," he wanted to get back to his "sex, lies, and videotape" indie roots. "Full Frontal" may star Julia Roberts, David Hyde Pierce and David Duchovny (with a cameo from Brad Pitt), but it's as far from studio filmmaking as you can get. It was shot in 18 days, mostly on video and in long uninterrupted takes. The actors had to provide their own costumes and makeup, and improvisation was de rigueur. No artificial lighting was allowed except in the scenes of a movie within the movie.

So don't expect "Pretty Woman." Transpiring in one smoggy day, "Full Frontal" (written by Coleman Hough) peeks over the shoulders of a gaggle of neurotic, creative L.A. types as they search for love, connections, success or (it sometimes seems) their lines. Catherine Keener is a bitchy corporate exec married to Hyde Pierce's self-doubting magazine writer while having an affair with an actor (Blair Underwood) who is playing an actor about to have an affair with a journalist (Roberts) in the movie within a movie. Nicky Katt plays a stage actor playing Hitler in a dreadful show whose director (Enrico Colantoni) is carrying on a chat-room romance with Keener's masseuse sister (Mary McCormack). They all come together at the party of the movie within the movie's producer (Duchovny). Alternatingly hilarious and annoying, incisive and self-indulgent, "Full Frontal" swings uneasily between hip skit humor and cinema verite. Soderbergh's playfully experimental spirit should be saluted, even if the end product looks like it was more fun to make than it is to watch.

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