WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- The peace is not nearly as much fun as the war was. American enjoyment of the war was supposedly a partial vindication of the war, which was supposed to be therapeutic, making us ''feel good about ourselves.'' But the aftermath is depressing.
We are in the war's fourth stage. The four have been: diplomatic blunders that brought on the war; preparing to fight; fighting; enjoying Charlton Heston and Whitney Houston television specials celebrating the war that had been the nation's favorite television program. The fifth stage -- scrubbing the pitch off our hands -- will last longer than the other four combined.
Some people want to shove America up to its elbows in Iraq's civil war in order to stop Saddam Hussein's slaughter of insurgents whose insurgency coincided with American calls for just that. But it is a crashing non-sequitur to say that if party A urges party B to overthrow a tyrant, then party A is obligated to participate in the overthrowing.
An Army lieutenant in occupied Iraq says ''there is not a man who would not go north and finish this job.'' But ''the job'' is done, at least as the job was defined by the agency to which we delegated the defining of it. The United Nations said the job was to liberate Kuwait. Kuwaitis have been restored to the misrule of their feckless royal family.
The United States stressed that the legitimacy of the war derived substantially from U.N. resolutions. Hence the United States is, as critics warned that it would be, now inhibited from unilateralism, including unilateral intervention in Iraq's civil war. Besides, what are we supposed to do, unilaterally or otherwise, with the ripped flesh of Iraqi society?
Nations are not machines, they are organisms, living things. When their flesh is torn, they bleed, get virulent infections, run raging fevers. We knew this, or had no excuse for not knowing it, when we went to war.
Is it America's interest or duty to become protector of Kurds, Shiites and other minorities now suffering the sort of terrors they might inflict, if they had minorities at their mercy? Kurds and Shiites seem united under Mr. Hussein's pounding, but there are factions within factions within these factions, and complexities we cannot comprehend, let alone control.
Kurds bet their lives on, and now feel betrayed by, the ''international community.'' Blather kills. We went to war pretending the U.N., or our coalition (featuring the Saddam-like Assad), was that ''community'' incarnate. Such propagandistic chatter leads people like the Kurds to entrust their lives to a fiction.
When Iraq capitulated, many Americans crowed that we had knocked ''the Vietnam syndrome'' into a cocked hat. But there actually were two Vietnam syndromes, one of which is, alas, very much alive.
Syndrome II, which came at the end of the Vietnam War, was the false and dangerous ''lesson'' that military power could accomplish little. But a decade before that there was Vietnam Syndrome I, which is proving to be a durable weed in the national garden. It was -- is -- the supreme political hubris of believing in ''nation building.'' This belief, contradictory to every syllable of Burkean conservatism, is that nations are like Tinker Toys, to be rearranged by Americans who have a right to be rearrangers because they are such clever social engineers.
America is a nation in which, once every four years, armies of clever journalists and opinion-measurers flood placid, open, democratic Iowa. They study it carefully -- and then are surprised by the results of decorous political caucuses.
But now America is supposed to sort out Iraq's murderous tribes on the zany premise that there must -- why must? -- be a bunch of democrats in there somewhere. This ambitious undertaking is being advocated by some conservatives who are not famous for their confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to do much of anything right on the North American continent.
A Wall Street Journal columnist, advocating deeper American involvement in Iraq's fate, argues that ''42 days of bombing create some obligation to play a role in what happens next.'' Oh? And then in the next next after the first next?
Such an ''obligation'' tends to be perpetually renewing, deepened by each intervention taken to fulfill it. Remember, U.S. complicity in the 1963 coup that killed President Diem embedded America's hands deep in the pitch of the Vietnam tar baby.
Iraq, currently convulsed, is an improvisation ginned up after the First World War, which began in Serbia, which is currently part of convulsed Yugoslavia, another improvisation by the diplomats who thought the First World War launched a new world order. When will we learn that wars sow disorders that last twenty times longer than the wars do?
That does not mean wars should not be fought, only that their therapeutic value -- making people ''feel good'' -- is evanescent.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.