A year ago, we were being prepared for an unprovoked invasion that most of the world virulently opposed. And we were lied to. Here, for example, is a knee-slapper Seattle Times headline from a year ago—March 17, 2003: "Bush: Saddam must leave within 48 hours." Our self-crowned Wartime President had said that if Saddam Hussein would accept exile and leave in 48 hours, all would be forgiven; otherwise, the invasion would occur.
Some 40 hours later, the U.S. invaded anyway—Bush's "ultimatum" being just one more disposable headline leading to an invasion that, we now know, had been a certainty for almost a year, at minimum. We were lied to about that, too. We now know the administration spent so much time planning how to sell its invasion that it apparently spent virtually no time thinking about how to run Iraq afterward.
But enough about last year's lies. In many ways, what will happen in Iraq in the next year will be just as critical a turning point in world geopolitics as the invasion itself. Bush's Iraq invasion, ultimately, didn't have much to do with Iraq. Sure, "cost-plus" contracts for friends and the promise of all that oil have been nice, but the real value was to announce in the most emphatic way possible that America now rules the world, and the world must play by our rules. Our new willingness to bully was meant to have military, political, and, ultimately, economic ramifications in every corner of the world.
But we don't know yet if that's how it will work out. That's what the next year is likely to reveal.
Two of the invasion's rationalizations are still in play, eligible for use in future adventurism. One is the idea of bringing brutal dictators to heel—the "humanitarian" post–Cold War rationale for war that was developed under Clinton. We'll hear it a lot as Saddam is trotted out for this year's show trial. That's all undermined, of course, by Bush's prewar offer of exile, which indicated we were perfectly willing to forgive Saddam his transgressions. (And why not? We were helping him during many of his worst ones.) How legitimate Saddam's trial seems—particularly since the U.S. continues to snub the international war-crimes court—might substantially influence the future willingness of other countries to sign off on removal of thugs the U.S. dislikes. The thugs we bankroll, alas, remain off-limits.
The coming year's second and more critical drama is the war itself. America remains committed to imposing, before U.S. elections (just like Saddam's trial), a new Iraqi government and constitution, with every member and clause ultimately approved by Washington. So far, the process has only further enraged a wide swath of Iraqi society.
Meanwhile, the ineptness of the U.S. occupation, particularly its inability to provide security, is making civil war more likely. This month, various Iraqi civil leaders began organizing militias to protect themselves. Militias have a nasty way of turning into death squads and, eventually, warring factions.
Further chaos nullifies Bush's second active invasion rationale: bringing democracy to the Middle East (except Palestine). But regardless of who rules Iraq or who's fighting whom, U.S. soldiers will remain in the fray for the foreseeable future—under either John Kerry or a re-elected Bush.
If U.S. soldiers and Iraqis continue to die, the geopolitical message intended by last year's invasion becomes substantially muted. Already, the word is out: The global bully cannot deal with even one largely spontaneous, ragtag, mostly homegrown guerrilla movement. Analysts outside and inside the Pentagon already are warning that the U.S. doesn't have enough military personnel to do what we are committing to do worldwide. Our implied and at times explicit threat of other invasions is looking less and less viable.
The next year will tell us a lot about whether America in the near term will be merely an extremely powerful country, or the dictator of a unilateral world. The neocon Bush agenda aspires to the latter; more and more, it looks to have overreached badly.
Meanwhile, there are lives at stake in Iraq. On Saturday, March 20, there are to be massive demonstrations worldwide—at last count, more than 200, on every continent, and in more than 50 countries, including ones in New York and on Capitol Hill. (For details, see www.mar20th.org.) There's plenty of reason to turn out in large numbers. Bush's actions this year, and those later under either Kerry or Bush, can either worsen the ongoing war or end it.
At this time last year, war in Iraq was a choice made by Americans. It still is.