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The cases for war 

Did anyone notice how the case for escalating the war in Iraq differed so starkly last week from the case for going to war?

Four years ago, it was to install democracy in the heart of Islam, protect Iraq’s neighbors and ourselves from Iraq’s vast store of chemical and biological weapons and the nuclear bombs that were close at hand, punish Iraq for the administration’s crazy notion that Saddam Hussein helped the 9/11 terrorists and, finally, end the fear and suffering of Iraqi people.

But when Bush announced the New Way Forward in Iraq, the purpose had changed. It is to avoid certain Armageddon. If the United States does not carry on to final victory in Iraq, the president said, the consequences are fixed: “Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

His lieutenants envisioned butchery in the streets as old sectarian rivalries intensified. The strife would spread to other Islamic countries and destabilize those (repressive) governments. American influence in the Middle East and around the world would recede as people everywhere doubted America’s authority and its power. Rogue elements would feel freer to operate. Prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be shattered.

Those are sobering thoughts all right, and that grim prospect caused people, including Democratic leaders, to doubt their own impulses that the United States needs to get out, sooner the better. Everyone knows by now that the people who predict all these calamities have been catastrophically wrong in every other forecast of what would happen in Iraq, but what if for once they are right?

Do all those warnings of historic calamity sound familiar? They should, for two reasons.

They were the warnings, at home and from abroad in 2002 and 2003, of what would happen if the United States invaded and occupied Iraq unilaterally in violation of international law and United Nations rules and without giving inspectors the chance to verify if anything the administration said was true. So clear were those fearful prospects in those days that even a poor, unread columnist in Arkansas gave utterance to them.

And they describe precisely what happened and what conditions are today, before the New Way Forward: civil war and a horribly degraded life for everyone who remains in Iraq, a surge of terrorists and sympathizers across Iraq and the Middle East, a confident and swashbuckling Iran, growing instability among the old regimes that America calls its friends, dimmer prospects in Palestine and Israel and winnowed prestige and influence for the United States.

Most poignant and frightening is the decline of American authority. The Sunni governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan pleaded with the administration to use its remnant of influence to try to settle the Israeli-Palestine crisis. Forget Iraq and concentrate on the solution to everything in the Middle East, Egypt said. The Iraq Study Group said essentially the same thing. So the president announced in the same speech last week that he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region to get things started on Palestine.

And there she was in Cairo Monday with the sad scared eyes and tremulous voice, avoiding any talk now of democracy in the region and speaking of stability and of taking small equivocal steps toward a Palestinian settlement.

All the officials are indulgent but no one pretends that she carries an ounce of authority. The New York Times reported swelling resentment of the Egyptian government, which like other Middle East autocracies tries to avoid appearing to be supportive of the United States. From Cairo, the Times reported: “The United States is so unpopular in the region now, many here say, that its support is enough to undermine a government’s legitimacy with its public.”

So what would happen if the United States said its work was done and pulled out of Iraq in stages? No one can predict other than that the bloodshed would continue, at least for a time. But the worst of the consequences that the administration now predicts are already the reality. The Shiites and Kurds, who are 80 percent of the country, are in firm command, even if the current U.S.-backed regime is shaky, and the bloody little Sunni insurgency will not change that. The question is when the Sunni death squads will exhaust themselves and the Shiites have sated their need for revenge. American presence seems to have little influence in restraining our newfound friends, the Shia.

Leaving at least would end the anti-American insurgency, no small issue.

As for the rest of Armageddon — a general Middle East conflagration that a neutered America would be powerless to prevent — its prospects are raised by Bush’s description of it as a sure effect of U.S. failure and withdrawal.

But America’s sharp decline in authority in the region and the world since 2003 does not result from a weak spine but from arrogance and a sudden monumental ignorance of how the world works. The reversal begins with recognition of its mistake and ending the occupation of that desperate country. The world will have to wait two more years for that hopeful day of American renaissance.

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