The lies and distortions surrounding the stated rationale for the war against Iraq now appear crude, clumsy, and embarrassing.  While it would have been unrealistic to expect Messrs. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz to display Bismarckian finesse in setting up Saddam Hussein, six months after the war was declared over, their actions should be judged by the objective criteria that have not changed since the Iron Chancellor’s days: Has the operation made the United States more or less powerful, affluent, respected, and secure?  While no final answer can be given until all U.S. troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, the longer that withdrawal is postponed, the more likely it is that the verdict will be negative.

In terms of the “War on Terror,” Iraq is a fiasco.  The war against Saddam Hussein—planned and desired by its executors long before September 11—was made possible by the terrorist attacks two years ago.  In addition, it was partly justified by the claim—notably emanating from the Pentagon’s Office of Special Planning—that Saddam had links to Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.  The claim was false: Iraq under Saddam did not maintain such links, and she was not a terrorist threat to the United States.  One unintended but predictable consequence of the war and occupation has been Iraq’s rapid conversion into a breeding ground for homegrown terrorists and a catalyst for violently anti-American activism throughout the region.

The attackers killing American soldiers on a daily basis are variously described as Iranian agents, Al Qaeda operators, and Syrian infiltrators.  While it is possible that some or all of the above are involved in the attacks that have claimed close to a thousand lives thus far—over 150 of them American—it is unlikely that resistance would cease without foreign intervention.  Violence against Americans, other foreigners, and their Iraqi helpers is fed by a restive population—especially in the Sunni center—that resents the foreign presence and wants it to end.  This nationalist sentiment will grow as long as American troops remain.  Bringing in more U.S. troops would only make things worse, and, in any event, the option is unattractive to the Bush administration only months before an election year.  Even if U.S. forces were to withdraw immediately, Iraq would remain a “country of concern” for decades to come.

In terms of credibility and prestige, America’s international standing has been jeopardized by the strain caused by the military occupation and political management of Iraq.  While there was less than meets the eye in President Bush’s call (on September 24) for the United Nations to help reconstruct Iraq—it was neither an admission that America has hit the limits of her might nor a major departure from his administration’s insistence on maintaining control—the fact that he felt compelled to appeal for help at all reflects a retreat from the heady days of May and June.  A few months ago, Mr. Bush’s volte-face would have caused chuckles and gloating in Paris and Berlin; today, however, many “old Europeans” are as uncomfortable with the prospect of America’s hasty and humiliating retreat from Iraq as they are with the thought of assuming the burden themselves.

The difficulties in Iraq have curtailed America’s ability to influence events in other important theaters.  Emboldened by the rapid fall of Baghdad, President Bush launched the “Road Map” for peace in Israel-Palestine, his top officials issued threats directed at Syria and Iran, and North Korea was openly mentioned as the next target.  The emerging Iraqi quagmire has emboldened Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to destroy the “Road Map,” and the mullahs are now more firmly in control of Teheran than ever, while Syria continues to garrison Lebanon and to support Palestinian militants.  North Korea, too, feels the heat is off and shows no sign of giving up on her nuclear program.

One important consequence of last August’s bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad is that other countries are reluctant to commit troops, policemen, or administrators.  The signal from the bombers was unambiguous: Whoever comes to Iraq, under whatever auspices, will be treated as an American stooge and targeted accordingly.  In the immediate aftermath of the war, an approach by the Bush administration to the United Nations with an offer of a Security Council-sanctioned mission in Iraq would have been welcomed in “Old Europe” and elsewhere—but the notion of sharing the fruits of victory with those who had opposed the war was regarded as unthinkable in Washington.  Today, the roles are reversed: President Bush wants a Security Council resolution that would retroactively legitimize American action and bring soldiers from various member-countries—under U.S. command—to help maintain a semblance of law and order in Iraq, but its approval is unlikely.

If the Security Council refuses to adopt the kind of resolution that Washington wants, it will be a blessing in disguise.  It is in the interest of the United States to hand over power in Iraq to a local government—or perhaps several governments, running the Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south—and to withdraw all troops as soon as possible.  The democratic credentials and ideology of those authorities taking over for the United States are immaterial.

By contrast, if Iraq were to become a U.N.-approved and managed mission, the outcome would be disastrous for all concerned.  The troops, including many Americans, would stay until the job of “nation-building” is complete—that is to say, forever.  A self-perpetuating, self-serving, and corrupt bureaucracy would inevitably emerge, à la Sarajevo and Pristina.  Even if the blue helmets were placed under U.S. command, the political decision-making process would become de facto multinational and “multilateral.”  American soldiers would continue to die, but their deaths would be even more senseless than they are today.