Have they got the message? Have Iraq's neighbors, and the rest of the world's dictators, understood the lesson of Operation Iraqi Freedom? And if so, what exactly was it?
It's fair to ask - after all, part of the purpose of this war was what the strategists call "demonstration effect". Its aim was not only to topple Saddam and find those elusive weapons of mass destruction but to show tyrants the world over, and especially in the Middle East, that America meant business; that Washington was not all talk, but was ready to use its overwhelming might to impose its will. The very things that made so many oppose this war - the fact that it was pre-emptive rather than provoked, the complete absence of UN or any other authorization - were all part of the show. They demonstrated the seriousness of American purpose.
The target audience centered on the remaining spokes of George Bush's axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, but it included any country with tendencies towards wickedness. It was not just Tehran and Pyongyang that were meant to feel the shock and the awe - but Damascus, too. (Maybe, hopes Tony Blair, even Harare felt a shudder.)
So what conclusion will the "evil-doers" draw from the display they have just witnessed? Washington reckons they will realize they have to change and knuckle under - or else get a dose of the Saddam treatment. Donald Rumsfeld was surely sending that message when he accused Syria of "hostile acts" a fortnight ago, as was undersecretary of state John Bolton on Thursday, when he urged Iran, North Korea and Syria to "draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq". Loose translation: "You've seen what happened to Baghdad, so behave - or you're next. You know we're crazy enough to do it."
The trouble is, it would be perfectly rational to come to the opposite conclusion. For the past month has been like a round-the-clock, slickly produced infomercial for acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Can't you just picture the North Korean leader, well-lit in a TV armchair, saying: "Hi, my name's Kim Jong-Il. My friend Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons, and look at the price he paid. I do have nukes - and America backed off. If you're a rogue state, call one of our operators now - and get nuked-up. The US won't touch you. I guarantee it."
That logic - what one former Clinton official calls "pre-empting the pre-emption" - might appeal to Iran and the newest member of the axis club, Syria. Both countries can now feel America's hot breath on their necks, with US forces right on their borders. Iran in particular has reason to feel jumpy: it's all but encircled, with a US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and all along the Persian Gulf waterway.
So will Tehran take the Pyongyang remedy, seeking a nuclear buffer to protect it from US might? There are grounds for that suspicion. Iran has shown an unusually active interest in nuclear energy for a country with the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Since gas is cheaper and more efficient than nuclear power, it is rather suspicious that Tehran is so keen on building nuclear generators. And it has hardly been open about its plans.
Washington sees other signs that Iran has failed to absorb the "with us or against us" new reality. Hawks cite the Karine A - the Iranian boat packed with arms which was on its way to Gaza to aid the Palestinian intifada before Israel intercepted it last year - and the safe harbor they say Iran has given to al-Qaida operatives fleeing from Afghanistan.
But all this forgets a basic fact about the Islamic republic: it has two governments. The conservative old guard may well be stuck in a confrontational posture with the US, but reformers around President Mohammed Khatami are not keen to provoke Washington. This group's alternative foreign policy saw Iran "play ball" during the US offensive against Afghanistan in 2001, according to one analyst. It may also have led to pressure on the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah to scale back its attacks on Israel, lest they stir America's ire. In other words, while some in Iran's ruling circle may decide the lesson of the past month is to stand firm, others will want to keep the US sweet.
As a one-party dictatorship, Syria offers a less divided picture - and it seems to be leaning toward the pussycat, rather than tiger, option. "They're very scared of what the US will do," says one experienced Syria hand. And they did not need the Iraq war to goad them into action; they've been trying to clean up their act since 9/11. Earlier this year Damascus withdrew another 5,000 troops from Lebanon, reducing a force that once stood at 30,000 to half that size. It can also claim shared credit for that recent reduction in Hizbullah activity - with the group launching just a handful of rocket attacks on northern Israel, inflicting little damage.
Those steps seemed calculated to comply with the Syria accountability bill, a proposal from the US Congress which would have exposed Damascus to a strict battery of sanctions. Syria saw the threat - and blinked. Equally revealing, Syria has been helping out in the war on terror. Al-Qaida suspects picked up in the US have found themselves transferred to Damascus for "interrogation" of a rather more persuasive variety than allowed in America. Would the Syrians like to go the Kim Jong-Il route? Maybe. But their attempts to get even a civil-use nuclear power plant have failed: no one is willing to incur US wrath by selling them one.
So it seems Washington could subdue both Syria and Iran without recourse to force: there are signs that both are prepared to make nice. They understand that the North Korea option, continued defiance, is only really available to those who have already got a nuclear deterrent. If you try to get one - try to pre-empt the pre-emption - the US military will be knocking on your door.
But will that be enough? Or will Washington choose to accentuate the negative, in order to turn what could be the reluctant co-operation of nations like Iran and Syria into confrontation? And there's plenty to accentuate. Damascus continues to make bellicose public noises, chiefly to placate a restless population, and it still hosts Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Syrian defense is that they like to keep an eye on those groups, but Washington may not buy it. Diplomats also suspect Damascus has chemical and biological weapons (though that goes for several countries in the region). On Iran, the US merely has to ignore the Khatami reformers and pick its fight with the conservative establishment.
Which way it goes depends on the ongoing struggle for the soul of the Bush administration. The Blair approach, endorsed by the state department, emphasizes the possibility of engagement: witness Bashar Assad's red-carpet visit to London last year.
But hawkish minds think differently. This week William Kristol, senior intellectual of the neo-conservative set, testified before the Senate foreign relations committee. He was asked whether the logic of the Iraq war - targeting a Ba'athist regime with links to terror and weapons of mass destruction - did not point inevitably to an attack on Syria, which meets all those same criteria. Kristol saw the logic, conceding that war with Syria could not be ruled out. This is the message from Washington: the shock and the awe may not be over yet.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003