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My Point / David M. Shribman: The history of Gulf War II -- choose your version

The first drafts are in. But imagine several scenarios for which way this war's aftermath could go

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

It's ending, at least on the surface. The shooting is subsiding, the resistance is crumbling. But there is no real end to a war, just as there is no real end to history. Wars affect life long after the shooting ceases, and Gulf War II will be no different.

  David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com). 

Nor will the effects of Gulf War II be easy to predict. The peacemakers of Paris believed they were creating a world fit for heroes in 1919; their peace after World War I turned out to be merely an armistice, and an uneasy one at that. Military and diplomatic officials in the first Bush administration resisted traveling deep into Iraq, believing that toppling Saddam Hussein would produce instability throughout the Middle East; they didn't get to Baghdad, but they sure got instability.

So it's impossible to know now, as the United States seeks to beat swords into plowshares in Iraq, how things will turn out and how history will record what the Americans tried to do in a land faraway at a time full of peril. But understanding the opportunities and threats of the future might be easier if we imagine several versions of what the past might look like, a generation from now, in history.

Think of these imaginary textbook extracts as the three swords of possibility in Iraq:

Terrible swift sword. In the years that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans felt less safe, less secure behind their own borders and shores, than ever. They saw threats at home and threats abroad, and the apparent spread of weapons of mass destruction prompted Americans, who until then did not consider safety one of the attributes of freedom, into frenzies of preparedness.

But for the first time, Americans came to believe that the best defense was a vigorous offense, and George W. Bush, son of a president and grandson of a senator, led the nation into a pre-emptive war in Iraq, routing Saddam Hussein, eliminating factories producing chemical and biological weapons, and installing an interim government that laid the foundation for the first Arab democracy. As the new sense of possibility spread, the stone images of Saddam Hussein increasingly came to look like statues of limitations.

The American successes revolutionized the region in a fashion deeper and more enduring than the discovery of oil had a generation earlier. The result spawned a growing middle class whose yearning for stability and whose promise of opportunity presented an irresistible alternative to radical clerics who yearned for upheaval and promised martyrdom. And in Iran and North Korea, the other two nations in the "axis of evil," the swift triumph of American forces brought a new willingness to open dialogue with the United States and, eventually, to relinquish ties to terrorist groups and efforts to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Sword of Damocles. The American victory in Iraq came swiftly, pleasing the military strategists and bewildering the skeptics, and soon a land that was long dominated by tyranny, and briefly overrun with looters, settled into a surface tranquility. The American occupiers, following in the footsteps of their grandfathers, distributed handshakes and Hershey bars, winning redemption for their president and for the phrase, discredited since the Vietnam war, "hearts and minds."

But the tranquility in Iraq was matched by turmoil abroad. The activists and terrorists of radical Islam agitated over the spectacle of a new Western occupation of an Arab land, and soon the anger seethed in madrassas from Syria to Singapore. Throughout the Muslim world, American embassies were besieged, some of them taken over by students chanting anti-American slogans and calling for jihad.

This new spike in anti-Americanism brought a new American determination to press on in Iraq, where the roots of democracy were shallow, and prompted the United States to launch a brief incursion, limited in its scope but unambiguous in its message, in Syria. The result was a surface pacification -- another term from the Vietnam war freighted in meaning -- but an underlying instability that kept the United States in the region, and under pressure, for more than a decade.

Two-edged sword. With technological weaponry and old-fashioned infantry, the Americans soon prevailed in Iraq, ending two dozen years of despotic rule by Saddam Hussein. But the victory in Iraq came at a terrible price.

The American war against terrorism, begun in Afghanistan in the days after the terrorist attacks of 2001, had all but eliminated al-Qaida as a potent force, and arrests of leading Qaida officials disrupted scores of terrorist plots against water systems, subways, nuclear power plants, airports and even tourist attractions in the West. Al-Qaida produced frightening rhetoric, but in reality -- a reality not apparent to contemporaries -- its days of terrorist spectaculars were long gone.

But just as al-Qaida was fading from the scene and from significance, the U.S. attack on Iraq gave new energy to a dying movement. Osama bin Laden described the live film images of the "shock and awe" air strikes against an Arab nation as "a recruiting video for al-Qaida," and the dispossessed and distressed of the Islamic world flocked to the terrorist movement. America had a victory in Iraq, to be sure -- but new, frightful dangers at home.

All these three swords are plausible. None is inevitable.

But American policy-makers planning the aftermath of the Iraq war need to think of what the future will look like a generation from now, when it is the past and when the strains and debates of today's world have faded away.

In this world of high-tech weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the pen may not seem mightier than the sword. But the pen, the instrument with which history is written, gets the last word. Best to heed it in advance.

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