It's a strange sort of war, one that's essentially over before it begins. All over, that is, except for the shooting, which is likely to play as a limited-run reality TV series rather than as a particularly tense series of knuckle-biting maneuvers playing out over months or years. There will be American casualties, of course (by some reports, they've already occurred), and for the families of the dead and injured, any casualty is one too many. But in the scheme of things, no one expects this to be a particularly tough fight. There will doubtless be a lot of stomach-turning footage and imagery to come out of this war, but like its predecessor, Gulf War 2 will likely be epic only to the soldiers on the ground.
This is the face of preemptive war. But the real question has always been whether we can win the preemptive peace. President Bush has offered up three basic, overlapping rationales for the war, painting it variously as a humanitarian intervention to liberate the people of Iraq from a tyrant; a necessary move to destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (including nukes) before he can use them himself against the U.S. or give them to terrorists; and as an attempt to jump start democracy in the Middle East.
These arguments did little to win support, both in the U.S. and abroad, for non-U.N.-sanctioned action. While a fair amount of that resistance can be chalked up to reflexive anti-Americanism, national self-interest, or some combination of the two, international support remains vitally important to winning the peace. World opinion matters, even if it's only a grudging acceptance that the U.S. is not simply using its dominant global position to pursue a narrowly self-interested agenda. This is especially true when it comes to garnering help in eradicating Islamist terrorism, the one absolutely undeniable threat to peace around the globe.
Humanitarian intervention—pooh-poohed by Candidate Bush, who sniffed at nation-building and promised a "humble" foreign policy—rarely wins the hearts and minds of detractors, since it rarely happens out of anything but highly mixed motives. Consider President Clinton's bombing of Kosovo, ostensibly done to protect ethnic Albanians from genocide. However much it might have helped that situation (opinions vary widely and certainly the region post Milosevic is nothing to pin high hopes on), it was widely—and convincingly—interpreted as little more than a wag-the-dog scenario cooked up to divert attention away from the sex scandals that plagued Clinton's second term. Ironically, humanitarian interventions, even when they do clearly improve the lives of the liberated, only get full credit when the "savior" nation has nothing to gain—which of course makes them less likely to occur in the first place. Hence, while it's clear that deposing Saddam will improve the lot of Iraqis, any such benefit will be discounted precisely by the amount that Saddam's defeat is seen as furthering other American interests.
Similarly, if the U.S. does not find "weapons of mass destruction" or evidence of a vibrant nuclear program in occupied Iraq, it will be virtually impossible to convince the world retroactively that war was necessary at this particular moment in time. The odds of finding such material may be longer than the Bush administration wants. As Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank reported in Monday's Washington Post, the Bush administration's case for war rests upon "a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged —and in some cases disproved—by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports." Chief among these is the claim that Iraq actually reconstituted its nuclear program. The aluminum tubes that supposedly clinched the case are apparently the wrong type for nuclear weapons and the president's claim that Iraq sought to buy uranium has been "refuted" write Pincus and Milbank, while "other claims have been questioned [and] their validity can be known only after U.S. forces occupy Iraq." Much in the court of world opinion will hinge upon what is found after the fact. Given that Iraq has apparently launched some Scu d missiles that weren't supposed to exist, it may well be that caches of biological and chemical weapons await post-war inspections as well. If those weapons are not found, however, the U.S. will come out of this war with fewer allies or "cooperating nations" than it started with.
Finally, there is the question of the coming occupation. Leaving aside the large issue of human and financial costs, it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. will succeed in turning Iraq into a democracy anytime soon, much less creating a Petri dish for the same throughout the region. Historically, the U.S. has always favored stability over self-rule, often seeing the two as mutually exclusive. As in South Korea, to name another place in which U.S. involvement was decisive, it will likely take decades for Iraq to emerge as anything like a Western-style democracy. As columnist Georgie Anne Geyer writes, "Iraq is the least likely country in the world to be 'democratized'…economic and social problems there [are] so intense as to undermine basic stability in the region for years."
A State Department document recently leaked to The Los Angeles Times underscores such an assessment, arguing according to its leaker that "this idea that you're going to transform the Middle East and fundamentally alter its trajectory is not credible." Founded in its modern form in 1932, Iraq has no tradition of democracy. Rather it has all too much acquaintance with a succession of more or less benevolent strong men and tyrants. Not only would democracy "be subject to exploitation by anti-American elements," it's far from clear that what happens in Iraq will have much spillover effect. As an intelligence officer told the Times, "to sell [the war] on the basis that this is going to cause 1,000 flowers to bloom is naive."
Back in the days of the first Gulf War, the current president's father declared that America's decisive military victory exorcised—finally!—the demons of defeat that haunted our nation. He may have been right on that limited score, but it's worth remembering that whatever your view on the current matter, we botched that peace. Opinions vary on why—hawks will tell you it's because we didn't finish the job by rolling the tanks all the way to Baghdad, moderates might say it's because we didn't support the uprisings against Saddam that occurred right after the war, doves might say it's because we intervened at all and then parked troops in Saudi Arabia for a dozen years.
But the fact that we're back fighting over the same sand means we left unfinished business. As we steamroller to military victory once again, that's an ominous sign for the coming peace, especially in a post-9/11 world, where the stakes are higher than ever.