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More than the insanity or weaponry of Saddam Hussein, we should fear the deepening of a rift between the Muslim world and the West. The haste with which we are building toward war in Iraq is sending the wrong message to both.

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Whether or not we should go to war with Iraq should probably be a more open question than it is now considered, with most of our readers coming down strongly on one side or the other. What is clear is the suicidal speed with which the Bush administration is rushing into this war. With too little immediate justification -- and the short- and long-term consequences for Iraq, the Middle East, the U.S., and the war on terror barely considered -- this speed is beyond reckless.

More than the insanity or weaponry of Saddam Hussein, we should fear the deepening of a rift between the Muslim world and the West. This war would send the wrong message to both.

Iraq will be invaded on the basis of a negative -- they can't prove they don't have weapons if we don't believe them -- and an assumption: If they have weapons, they will use them against us. Should we invade a foreign country on the chance, no matter how good, that its leader may either supply terrorists or order acts of terror committed? We have not just ignored Hussein's brutal rule in the past; at points, we supported him. Hussein was not behind 9/11, no matter what talk-radio hosts tell us, and al Qaeda and Iraq are not natural allies, though by now we've more than driven them together. Recent reports have al Qaeda purchasing nuclear weapons from renegade Russian agents. The chances of another major terrorist incident are almost certain. Whether or not Hussein's fingerprints will be on it is another story.

Reasons seem not to matter much. Sooner rather than later, expect the invasion: All this military buildup without a payoff will be too frustrating. The war on terror is already going to be complicated, its progress ambiguous at best. Neither restricted by geography nor likely to be finite, it is more a lifestyle change than a war. Fear rather than comfort, concern rather than assurance, local rather than distant -- it is about what could happen next, not what is happening somewhere else. There is no Star Wars to stop it, no military buildup that can contain it. Bush feels he needs to counter the sense of the unfamiliar that is overwhelming the familiar. This war is being pushed for neither humanitarian nor moral reasons: At best, it is an ill-considered, if necessary, act of national self-preservation; at worst, it is a cynical political ploy.

The speed of this war is its inherent disaster, guaranteeing it won't fulfill its goals, regardless of what they may actually be. We are fighting a new war with the old ways and weapons. The concentration is on TV-friendly, massive actions -- a kind of ideological comfort food. The war on terror can't be fought by sound bite.

It can't even be effectively fought by the military. What is needed is a complex, worldwide intelligence network. Communication, knowledge, and information, with all implied meanings and complexities, are the new weapons. We're so busy getting ready for war, we're not even beginning to think of, much less introduce, new strategies. Once, we were farmers shooting at the Redcoats from behind stone walls. Today we are the ones marching in doomed formations, underestimating the determination of the enemy and the effectiveness of their strategies.

Part of fighting the war has to be reimagining the peace. Intelligence will prove impotent unless complemented by a commitment to a study and understanding of not just the Muslim but all of the Third World. Learning history and customs, addressing nonmilitary concerns, examining our image, revisiting our policies, understanding differences in attitudes, assumptions, and goals while re-creating our political relationships are strategies that, though diplomatic, are essentially defensive tactics.

If the war goes as the White House hawks daydream it will -- quickly, effectively, with little loss of lives, especially American -- the long-range impact will still be destructive, creating hostilities that will be nurtured and grow for decades. If they're wrong -- if the war drags out, if there is more resistance than anticipated and casualties run high -- it will be worse, with the home front split and the economy imperiled, in addition to breeding international anti-Americanism.

For the administration, the model for this is the invasion of Afghanistan, which made for a great TV war narrative. Despite the concerns and warnings of many, we went in, kicked ass, and took names. The Taliban was easily toppled, and bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership either killed or forced on the run. It felt good. No substantial act of terror has taken place on American soil since 9/11, so let's deliver Act II. Another invasion, another actively hostile foreign government toppled, another international villain taken out.

Only Afghanistan isn't over yet. The central government is at best shaky; the warlords are back in charge; the foreign aid promised has, for the most part, not appeared. The country hasn't stabilized, and our attention is already wandering. More important, the consequences of our invasion as a symbolic act in the Muslim world have hardly been given time to gestate.

Al Qaeda are fundamentalist fanatics who have borrowed the rhetoric of Palestinian grievances and desire for statehood as well as raising the specific issue of U.S. bases on Saudi Arabian soil. Their true concerns are not nearly so regionally focused. Anti-democratic, anti-women's rights, against freedom of religion, of press, of dress, of beliefs, of civil rights, and of a secular legal system, they want a world administered by vehement, narrowly focused clergy operating within the guidelines of the strictest religious interpretations. Reading about our victories against al Qaeda so far reminds me of our great victories in the Vietnam War -- right before we began to acknowledge we were losing it. There, the people were against us; short of genocide, there was no way to win. And that was in a geographically definable country. Al Qaeda is not a territory but a philosophy: ideas and beliefs that are easily spread and almost impossible to contain conventionally. Wipe out the leadership, and a new one will arise. Invade a country, inspire another generation of jihadists. Even without leadership, this is a worldwide guerrilla war where anyone with a gun, a knife, a bomb can be the enemy. The more we define and deepen the rift between the Muslim world and the West, the more directly we recruit for the other side in this war on terror.

As much as they hate the West, al Qaeda and the like hate secular Muslim states. Which makes them natural enemies of Hussein's Iraq. Obviously, in the face of the greater enemy -- the U.S. and the West -- there is an active and growing alliance. But that cooperation has to be uneasy.

Now, if we don't invade, we have made it overwhelmingly obvious to Hussein that he has to move against us. Supplying our enemies, even if they are his enemies as well, with biological and nuclear weapons becomes an obvious option. This country's oft-stated conviction that he already is or soon will be actively involved in either supporting or directing acts of terror might be a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy. Which isn't to say he wouldn't have done so anyway, but it also isn't to say he would have. Rushing the timetable, we insist, is necessary to catch him earlier rather than later. It could, instead, turn out to be a strategic mistake.

If nothing else, the martial noise we've been making, coupled with our obvious desire for this war, will bring exactly the results we don't want. Even if we don't go to war, we're further polarizing the international political situation. In a time where understanding and diplomacy are our best hope, we've turned the playbook back to Teddy Roosevelt's imperialist arrogance. Unfortunately, the means here seem to hopelessly doom the end. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

George W. Bush, Bush administration, war in Iraq, war terrorism, terrorism, Middle East, haste to war in Iraq, Muslim, anti-American, anti-Americanism, American imperialism, conventional war strategy, international terrorism, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan, war in Afghanistan, Vietnam War, anti-war, pro-war

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