American footprint

April 17, 2003

FROM THE START, opponents of the war in Iraq were focused on the period that begins now.

The outcome, militarily, was not in question. In short order, U.S. armed forces have routed those of Saddam Hussein. It was an impressive accomplishment, and it silenced doubters who had worried that insufficient troops had been deployed to get the job done.

But are the forces - and the will and the expertise - there for the job that now needs doing?

To answer that question, it's important to try yet again to understand what this war was about.

The trigger, ostensibly, was Iraq's biological and chemical weapons. There were arguments over whether they constituted a sufficient reason for war, but little debate over their actual existence. It has been, frankly, a surprise that they've been so hard to find.

Perhaps for that reason, the administration is giving them less prominence, and emphasizing two other justifications. One is to subtly foster the belief now widespread among Americans that Mr. Hussein had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks. But no one in the administration can actually believe that, because it's not true. So that cannot have been the real cause of the war.

The second argument, and it's a better one, is to point out that the Iraqi people have been freed from Mr. Hussein's tyranny. As a fact, no one can dispute it. Even though the mood has started to sour somewhat from the first heady days, it's clear that Iraq is much better off without the murderous regime that infiltrated every corner of life there.

The end of Mr. Hussein, as opponents of the war always argued, is the one certain good result to be expected from it.

But it stretches credulity to believe that President Bush committed the United States to war simply for the deliverance of the long-suffering Iraqi people. If that's the driving force of U.S. foreign policy, then war in Uzbekistan, Belarus and Myanmar must be on the horizon. And Cuba and Liberia and Turkmenistan. And the list goes on.

No. The point of this war seems to have been to put a big American don't-mess-with-us footprint on the Middle East. In that sense, it was a success. But it means that the consequences are not going to be so simple. Just getting rid of weapons of mass destruction, or Mr. Hussein, or al-Qaida's Iraq connections, isn't good enough.

When Americans leave Iraq, they have to leave the country in good running order. They have to show the people of the Middle East that U.S. intervention leads to positive results for ordinary Middle Easterners. And they have to demonstrate to the world that U.S. foreign policy is making it a safer place.

That's a tall order. But failure could be catastrophic for America's own interests. By taking over Iraq, the United States has put its prestige, credibility and security on the line - and now comes the hard part.

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