Just the Beginning: Is Iraq the Opening Salvo in a War to Remake the World? (Cover Story)

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For months Americans have been told that the United States is going to war against Iraq in order to disarm Saddam Hussein, remove him from power, eliminate Iraq's alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and prevent Baghdad from blackmailing its neighbors or aiding terrorist groups. But the Bush administration's hawks, especially the neoconservatives who provide the driving force for war, see the conflict with Iraq as much more than that. It is a signal event, designed to create cataclysmic shock waves throughout the region and around the world, ushering in a new era of American imperial power. It is also likely to bring the United States into conflict with several states in the Middle East. Those who think that U.S. armed forces can complete a tidy war in Iraq, without the battle spreading beyond Iraq's borders, are likely to be mistaken.

"I think we're going to be obliged to fight a regional war, whether we want to or not," says Michael Ledeen, a former U.S. national-security official and a key strategist among the ascendant flock of neoconservative hawks, many of whom have taken up perches inside the U.S. government. Asserting that the war against Iraq can't be contained, Ledeen says that the very logic of the global war on terrorism will drive the United States to confront an expanding network of enemies in the region. "As soon as we land in Iraq, we're going to face the whole terrorist network," he says, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a collection of militant splinter groups backed by nations--Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia--that he calls "the terror masters."

"It may turn out to be a war to remake the world," says Ledeen.

In the Middle East, impending "regime change" in Iraq is just the first step in a wholesale reordering of the entire region, according to neoconservatives--who've begun almost gleefully referring to themselves as a "cabal." Like dominoes, the regimes in the region--first Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, then Lebanon and the PLO, and finally Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia--are slated to capitulate, collapse or face U.S. military action. To those states, says cabal ringleader Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an influential Pentagon advisory committee, "We could deliver a short message, a two-word message: `You're next.'" In the aftermath, several of those states, including Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, may end up as dismantled, unstable shards in the form of mini-states that resemble Yugoslavia's piecemeal wreckage. And despite the Wilsonian rhetoric from the president and his advisers about bringing democracy to the Middle East, at bottom it's clear that their version of democracy might have to be imposed by force of arms.

And not just in the Middle East. Three-thousand U.S. soldiers are slated to arrive in the Philippines, opening yet another new front in the war on terrorism, and North Korea is finally in the administration's sights. On the horizon could be Latin America, where the Bush administration endorsed a failed regime change in Venezuela last year, and where new left-leaning challenges are emerging in Brazil, Ecuador and elsewhere. Like the bombing of Hiroshima, which stunned the Japanese into surrender in 1945 and served notice to the rest of the world that the United States possessed unparalleled power it would not hesitate to use, the war against Iraq has a similar purpose. "It's like the bully in a playground," says Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania professor of political science and author of Unsettled States, Disputed Lands. "You beat up somebody, and everybody else behaves."

Over and over again, in speeches, articles and white papers, the neoconservatives have made it plain that the war against Iraq is intended to demonstrate Washington's resolve to implement President Bush's new national-security strategy, announced last fall--even if doing so means overthrowing the entire post-World War II structure of treaties and alliances, including NATO and the United Nations. …