This week's developments in Iraq mark the end of the beginning of the coalition effort in a land that has been conquered by - but, curiously and perhaps fatefully - never dominated by the West before. And in the land between the two storied rivers of Mesopotamia, one of the early cradles of civilization and a place where civilizations continually clash, the dangers of peace may well outweigh the perils of war.
While the most tragic events of the year may occur in the next several days on the ground, the most significant events still may lie ahead.
The Bush Administration effort to create a new Iraq, and in turn to help shape a new Middle East, is only in its infancy. It will require money, manpower, and moral strength. It will test America's patience and its political will. It will not be easy.
And so, in many ways, the great test of President Bush may turn out not to be the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001, or the aftermath of the failure to persuade Saddam Hussein to turn over his weapons cache in 2002, or even the aftermath of the decision to force Iraq militarily to take the steps in 2003 that it refused to do peacefully. It will, instead, be the way the President manages the aftermath of the war itself.
Here, then, is a viewers' guide to the challenges that face the President - obstacles that cannot be overcome by grand rhetoric, massive firepower, or ingenious military strategy - and that confront us all:
w A brisk consensus on what will be the character of the new Iraq.
On the campaign trail, Gov. George W. Bush expressed skepticism of the notion of “nation-building.” Now he is engaged in perhaps the greatest undertaking of “nation-building” of the last half century. In the case of Iraq, the phrase is no mere metaphor; it is an apt description of the task that faces America and its allies. Its capital wrecked, its ports in rubble, its people in wretched shape, Iraq needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.
But that is not all. The political system of Iraq doesn't have to be rebuilt. It has to be re-invented. The idealists in the Bush Administration and the Blair government propose to follow decades of Baathist rule with the imposition of western-style democratic rule. That is no small challenge. Some 86 years ago the great British Arabist Gertrude Bell marked the British invasion of Iraq - “the first big success” of World War I, she said - by writing of the country, “We shall, I trust, make it a great center of Arab civilization, a prosperity.” Idealism, we have seen, has failed before, but if it is to be tried again, there is no time to waste.
w A patient application of power.
One of the ironies of the period is that though the consensus about the character of the new Iraq must come swiftly, the work of imposing that consensus must be done slowly, with forbearance and discipline. The approach must be parental - firm, that is, but gentle - but not patronizing. The occupying forces must remember, too, that successful revolutions are seldom imposed from outside, and almost never take root quickly. The best lesson comes not from the Soviet Revolution of 1917, which was a failure, but from the American Revolution of 1776, which was a success; democracy took hold here because the American colonists had a great advantage: years of experience with democratic institutions. Iraq will require this as well. The United States has proved in recent days that it has the power to get things done. It now must prove that it has the patience.
w A sober reckoning of American responsibility around the world.
The intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq were formed in the crucible of crisis. They were tactics for facing the challenges of the new world and the new century. But there is a difference between tactics and strategy, and the nation still needs a strategy.
Once the Iraq war is over, a serious period of introspection on international affairs must begin. This should include reflection on the nature of America's relations around the globe, not only with its implacable rivals but also with its impatient allies. Writing in the Guardian newspaper about Spain's domination in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Yale historian Paul Kennedy said, “Historically most great global powers tend, rather oddly, to assume that other nations and states accept their benign and disinterested leadership, and the imperial elite thus concludes that the few who don't are rebels, or renegade powers, or members of some axis of evil.” The United States must learn from history if it is to make history.
w A recognition of the inherent tension between leadership and democratic rule.
This is perhaps the greatest of all problems faced in political systems that are based on popular rule. U.S. politicians draw their oxygen, and sometimes false courage, from polls. But Britain's Tony Blair has defied the polls in his determination to join President Bush in the effort to topple Saddam Hussein.
The most telling poll results aren't from early spring 2003, when the war has begun and when the public is rallying around its leaders; an Ipsos Public Affairs/Cook Political Report Poll released yesterday showed Mr. Bush's approval ratings soar to 63 percent, up seven percentage points in a month. Instead, the most telling poll results are from early autumn 2002, when war was on the distant horizon; at that time, 70 percent of the British people were against joining the United States in hostilities against Iraq without a United Nations mandate. Mr. Blair pressed on anyway.
His determination stands as a reminder, at this time when so many are so courageous, and in an era where fundamental questions about leadership are unresolved in Iraq, that nations governed by popular will can still be led by figures with individual will.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.