In March 2003, before US troops reached Baghdad, Middle East specialist Volker Perthes wrote that while the risks of this "illegitimate" war were enormous, those of "a US failure to stabilize postwar Iraq would be even higher."
With those words looking increasingly prophetic, no one, in picturing the implications of such failure, is now more lurid than the Bush administration. The direness of the prospect has become its strongest argument for "staying the course," but for others it is already a given, amounting to "the greatest strategic disaster in US history," in the words of retired US general William Odom.
If so, what will this disaster look like? In scale, it will surely be at least commensurate with the vast ambitions that came with the invasion in the first place, Iraq being cast as the platform for reshaping the entire Middle East.
A general US retreat from the region, with troop withdrawal at its core, is no doubt a prerequisite for and yardstick of the emergence of a healthy, self-reliant new Middle Eastern order. But, with the kind of ignominious scuttle from Iraq that failure would presumably entail, the region won't just revert to the status quo ante. Instead of Iraq becoming a beacon of all good things, it will become the single most noxious wellspring of all the bad ones the invasion was supposed to extinguish -- and new ones to boot.
If the Middle East was a jungle before, it will be a wilder one afterwards, with most elements of the decadent existing order, in their increased insecurity, driven to even cruder methods -- increased internal repression or external adventurism -- to preserve themselves.
And it will become even more anti-American. For while a "good" retreat would decrease such sentiments, a "bad" Iraqi one will only spur and spread the active, often violent expression of them. That is because, for the Arabs, Iraq was only the latest drastic episode in a long history of Western interference in their affairs. Until the wider, pre-Iraqi consequences of that interference are remedied, the example of successful anti-US resistance in Iraq will only encourage it elsewhere, especially in Palestine.
Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein was the very model of Arab tyranny -- with sectarianism, in the shape of Sunni minority rule, as its main component. With American failure it will become the model of Arab anarchy, embodying the two most disruptive forces in the Middle East today. One is a sectarianism (chiefly Sunni versus Shia) or an ethnic antagonism (chiefly Kurd versus Arab, Turk and Iranian) as malevolent in its new pluralist form as it was in its more familiar despotic one. The other is universalist, ideologically driven Islamism.
Elections show that this is the dominant or rising force on both sides of Iraq's widening sectarian divide. Islamism will spawn its inevitable fanatical progeny and Iraq, until now mainly a magnet for pan-Islamic jihadists, will become, Afghanistan-style, a main exporter of them too. It already is, in fact, as the Jordanian suicide bombings illustrated.
The Arab states will be sucked into this Iraqi maelstrom. With the world's only superpower on its way out, who but they -- along with Turkey and Iran -- are left to replace it there? But they will fail disastrously in their turn. In the past the regimes more or less controlled the business of interference in each other's affairs, as they exerted such control over their domestic arenas.