Now that the war has begun, the world hopes it will end swiftly with minimal casualties. But wars are almost always unpredictable. As U.S. President George W. Bush himself has warned, the conflict could be “longer and more difficult than some predict.” There is also the possibility that, even if it ends swiftly, the threat of global terrorism will not go away. Military victory does not necessarily make the world safer.

This war is essentially different from past wars. It is a war to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. It is a war aimed at toppling a dangerous dictatorship — the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — and spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. And it is the first war in history to implement the doctrine of preemption. President Bush said American and coalition forces are fighting to “disarm Iraq, to free its people and defend the world from grave danger.”

The problem is that this war has no explicit U.N. authorization. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States led a U.N.-backed multinational force. This time around it has the support of more than 35 nations, including Japan, but not its traditional European allies like France and Germany. There is now a deep sense of mistrust between the U.S. and Western Europe.

This failure of diplomacy has left a big blot on the United Nations. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned, the unilateral declaration of war has “impaired” the legitimacy of the world body. The U.S. may be able to repair some of the damage to its international standing, particularly if the war develops according to script, but the world of the 21st century will never be the same again. No doubt America’s supremacy will continue, but that is in itself no guarantee of global stability.

The war itself, even if it is conducted successfully for the U.S. and its coalition forces, could have unforeseen consequences. The Bush administration wants to minimize civilian casualties through pinpoint attacks using high-tech precision weapons. But errors are possible, as evidenced by the campaign in Afghanistan. There is no such thing as a “clean war.”

Shortly before the attack began, the U.S. tested the MOAB — the massive ordnance air blast, or “mother of all bombs” — which is said to have more destructive power than any conventional bomb. A U.S. think tank says the bomb could kill tens of thousands of civilians. Nobody can predict that President Hussein will surrender before this blockbuster weapon is dropped.

It will not be surprising if the Hussein regime goes ahead with reported plans to use ordinary citizens as “human shields” against key military installations. Die-hard resistance from the Republican Guard and other elite troops is also a likely prospect. In particular, urban warfare will make things much worse. The nightmare scenario is the possible use of biological and chemical weapons.

President Hussein can still stop the war by surrendering. But he seems recklessly determined to fight to the bitter end. In a televised speech, he appealed for a pan-Arab “jihad,” or holy war, saying that “in the name of Iraq, its civilization and history, we will fight the invaders,” and that “they will be defeated.” He also warned that wars would engulf the world.

The U.S. invasion, says the Central Intelligence Agency, could increase the danger of terrorist attacks in the U.S. Opinion polls in Arab countries find more than 70 percent expect terrorism to intensify. This war, no matter how it ends, will likely create deeper rifts between the Islamic world and the Western world, particularly the U.S. — rifts that, as historian Samuel Huntington has predicted, could lead to a “clash of civilizations,” or an invisible world war.

America will have a long way to go in fighting terrorism even after Mr. Hussein is ousted. Former CIA director James Woolsey predicts that the war on terror will last two or three decades. Reportedly, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, one of the U.S. “neoconservatives” — who advocate a hardline foreign policy — has been quoted as saying Washington is looking beyond Iraq toward how to deal with Iran, Syria and North Korea.

The Bush administration’s plan for post-Hussein Iraq calls for the creation of a free and democratic state following a transitional period of U.S. military occupation. In the longer run, this plan envisions similar reforms throughout the entire Middle East. It is a “grand design,” but one that seems tailored largely to the ideological aspirations of the neoconservative hawks. Pursuit of such a strategy is likely to instigate rampant acts of terrorism, which will mean the advent of a new kind of “invisible war” different from conventional ones. To succeed in the true sense of the word, it must be broadly supported by the international community.

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