Of course we'll win on the battlefield, probably with ease. I'm not a military expert, but I can do the numbers: the most recent U.S. military budget was $400 billion, while Iraq spent only $1.4 billion.
What frightens me is the aftermath — and I'm not just talking about the problems of postwar occupation. I'm worried about what will happen beyond Iraq — in the world at large, and here at home.
The members of the Bush team don't seem bothered by the enormous ill will they have generated in the rest of the world. They seem to believe that other countries will change their minds once they see cheering Iraqis welcome our troops, or that our bombs will shock and awe the whole world (not just the Iraqis), or that what the world thinks doesn't matter. They're wrong on all counts.
Victory in Iraq won't end the world's distrust of the United States, because the Bush administration has made it clear, over and over again, that it doesn't play by the rules. Remember: this administration told Europe to take a hike on global warming, told Russia to take a hike on missile defense, told developing countries to take a hike on trade in lifesaving pharmaceuticals, told Mexico to take a hike on immigration, mortally insulted the Turks and pulled out of the International Criminal Court — all in just two years.
Nor, as we've just seen, is military power a substitute for trust. Apparently the Bush administration thought it could bully the U.N. Security Council into going along with its plans; it learned otherwise. "What can the Americans do to us?" one African official asked. "Are they going to bomb us? Invade us?"
Meanwhile, consider this: we need $400 billion a year of foreign investment to cover our trade deficit, or the dollar will plunge and our surging budget deficit will become much harder to finance — and there are already signs that the flow of foreign investment is drying up, just when it seems that America may be about to fight a whole series of wars.
It's a matter of public record that this war with Iraq is largely the brainchild of a group of neoconservative intellectuals, who view it as a pilot project. In August a British official close to the Bush team told Newsweek: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." In February 2003, according to Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, Under Secretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq the United States would "deal with" Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Will Iraq really be the first of many? It seems all too likely — and not only because the "Bush doctrine" seems to call for a series of wars. Regimes that have been targeted, or think they may have been targeted, aren't likely to sit quietly and wait their turn: they're going to arm themselves to the teeth, and perhaps strike first. People who really know what they are talking about have the heebie-jeebies over North Korea's nuclear program, and view war on the Korean peninsula as something that could happen at any moment. And at the rate things are going, it seems we will fight that war, or the war with Iran, or both at once, all by ourselves.
What scares me most, however, is the home front. Look at how this war happened. There is a case for getting tough with Iraq; bear in mind that an exasperated Clinton administration considered a bombing campaign in 1998. But it's not a case that the Bush administration ever made. Instead we got assertions about a nuclear program that turned out to be based on flawed or faked evidence; we got assertions about a link to Al Qaeda that people inside the intelligence services regard as nonsense. Yet those serial embarrassments went almost unreported by our domestic news media. So most Americans have no idea why the rest of the world doesn't trust the Bush administration's motives. And once the shooting starts, the already loud chorus that denounces any criticism as unpatriotic will become deafening.
So now the administration knows that it can make unsubstantiated claims, without paying a price when those claims prove false, and that saber-rattling gains it votes and silences opposition. Maybe it will honorably refuse to act on this dangerous knowledge. But I can't help worrying that in domestic politics, as in foreign policy, this war will turn out to have been the shape of things to come.
Originally published in The New York Times, 3.18.03