JERUSALEM -- As some people predicted even before it all started, America's war against Iraq proved so easy as to make one wonder why it had to be fought at all.
As other people also predicted before it all started, the really hard part got under way only after President George W. Bush declared "major combat operations" at an end. More American soldiers have died trying to safeguard the "victory" than were killed in achieving it in the first place; nor does it look as if there is anything the United States can do to change the trend.
As the promise to advance the Iraqi elections to mid-2004 shows, the United States will lose - in fact already has lost - the war. The Americans will leave the country in the same way as the Soviets left Afghanistan: with the Iraqi guerrillas jeering at them. The only question is how long it will take and how much prestige can still be saved from the ruins. That, and that alone, is the issue that still faces Bush, who is up for re-election and must somehow put this issue behind him before Americans go to the polls.
What will happen to Iraq once the Americans have left is anybody's guess. That an American-appointed government can sustain itself seems unlikely - at the moment, any member of the so-called Governing Council who so much as shows his or her nose outside the compound where they are cooped up will be killed on the spot.
Assuming that Saddam Hussein is behind the guerrilla attacks, no doubt he will try to assume control of the country again. If he is strong enough to do this, then the situation ante quam will be largely restored; imagine Saddam thumbing his nose at Bush as he did at Bush's father.
If he is not, then Iraq will probably disintegrate into three parts, a Shiite south, a Sunni center, and a Kurdish north. Judging by the fact that the last-named has never been able to overcome its tribal divisions, none of the three is likely to develop into a proper, centrally ruled state. The most likely outcome is three mini-Afghanistans that will serve as havens for terrorist activities throughout the Middle East.
Around Iraq, the states that have most to fear from an American collapse are Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Each in its own way depends on American support. All three suffer under severe social strain, whether against an ethnic background - as in Jordan, where Bedouin and Palestinians clash - or a religious one, as is largely the case in the other two.
As unrest spreads from Iraq, one or two might well see their regimes overthrown. Jordan, being small and weak, will be of concern mainly to its immediate neighbors such as Syria - which, if it tries to intervene, will have Israel to reckon with. By contrast, the collapse of Saudi Arabia, or a situation whereby Egypt turns into an Islamic republic and abrogates its treaty with Israel, would have worldwide economic and strategic implications.
In the short run, the greatest beneficiary of the war is Israel. The destruction of Iraq has created a situation in which, for the first time since Israel was founded in 1948, it has no real conventional enemy left within about 1,000 kilometers, or 600 miles, of its borders. If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had any sense, he would use this window of opportunity to come to some kind of arrangement with the Palestinians. Whether he will do so, though, remains to be seen.
In the longer run, the greatest beneficiary is likely to be Iran, which, without having to lift a finger, has seen its most dangerous enemy ground into the dust. Even before America invaded Iraq, the Iranians, feeling surrounded by nuclear-capable U.S. forces on three sides (Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics, the Gulf), were working as hard as they could to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to match. Now that the United States has proved that it is prepared to fight anybody for no reason at all, they should be forgiven if they redouble their efforts.
Even if the Islamic Republic were overthrown, the new government in Tehran would surely follow the same nationalist line as its predecessor. A nuclear Iran would most likely be followed by a nuclear Turkey. Next would come a nuclear Greece, a nuclear Saudi Arabia and a nuclear Egypt. Welcome to the Brave New World, Mr. Bush.
The writer, a professor of history at Hebrew University, is author of the forthcoming book "Defending Israel."
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