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Back in autumn, there were reports that some people were betting on when war would start. Now that it’s begun, it’s worthwhile thinking about how it might end. Here are some thoughts on five possible outcomes, from worst to best, and the likelihood of each:

* Nuclear Armageddon with over a billion casualties and a large part of the Earth left uninhabitable. This scenario assumes case two, listed below, and that the war triggers either an attack by North Korea on the South or a nuclear attack on U.S. soil, leading Washington to launch a massive counterattack on Pakistan, Russia and whatever other parties they suspect of having provided the means. Probability: 1 percent.

* Major regional conflict extending over decades, starting with war between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds; attempted Israeli ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians to Jordan; popular democratic revolutions in Jordan, Egypt and Yemen leading to militant Islamist takeovers; a Shiite uprising in South Iraq leading to an American war with Iran; and an American attempt at regime change in Syria, leading to civil war in that country with Sunnis rising up to massacre the Alawites and other minorities associated with the current regime. The U.S. involvement in these events exacts a tremendous cost in blood and treasure, leaving China and the European Union as the world’s major powers after 20 years. Probability: 30 percent.

* No net change for the worse: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is deposed, a reasonably stable, moderately authoritarian regime is established, and the bulk of U.S. troops leave within two years. This scenario assumes that the majority of the American electorate really does not want a U.S. Middle East empire. After Hussein is gone, the prowar faction splits into two, with the neoconservative hawks of the Republican Party favoring endless wars in the Middle East, and the rest siding with the Democrats to bring it to a close. Alternatively, the current administration loses the next election with the same result.

I say there is no net change for the worse because the loss of Hussein is balanced by increased terrorism against U.S. targets in Iraq and elsewhere, and the damage to the international system has already been done. I see this, perhaps too optimistically, as the most likely outcome.

Probability: 45 percent.

* Slight change for the better. Hussein is gone. America invests huge amounts of money and personnel in rebuilding the country over a period of decades, while showing restraint in response to terrorist attacks against such personnel. War between the Kurds and Turks is avoided, an Iran-backed Shiite uprising is put down with restraint and minimal bloodshed. The U.S. occupation force avoids the temptation to intervene in neighboring countries in spite of cross-border incursions. The cost to American taxpayers is huge, but is partly made up by a drop in oil prices.

Probability: 25 percent.

* The sight of American troops parading victoriously through the ruins of Baghdad inspires spontaneous demonstrations of love for America throughout the world, but especially throughout the Islamic Middle East. From Syria to Sudan, dictators, emirs and sheiks renounce their powers, declaring “from today I am but a citizen.” Constitutional conventions meet in all the Arab capitals. Millennia of tribal conflict, ethnic enmity and communal mistrust are shrugged off in a moment, with cries of liberty and justice for all. Representatives of all Palestinian groups present an olive branch to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, saying their lives and lands are his. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayatollah Khamenei convene a conference on the separation of church and state. Democracy blooms. All is well.

Probability: 0 percent.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to see greater democracy in the Middle East, as would virtually all of my Arab and Muslim friends. But history and logic force me to conclude that the U.S. government has neither the ability nor the desire to see that happen. U.S. attempts to impose democracy on countries riven by ethnic, tribal, communal divisions — Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan — have not been terribly successful.

If the U.S. cannot impose a just and democratic peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where it enjoys huge leverage with both sides, why should we expect it to succeed in reconciling the disparate ethnic and religious groupings that make up Iraq?

Moreover, given that public opinion in the Arab world is overwhelmingly hostile to U.S. policies and presence in the region, as witnessed by continuing demonstrations in Cairo, Amman, Rabat, Tehran and Sana, why would the U.S. want to set up governments responsive to public opinion? Washington’s hostility to Iran — which, like it or not, is a constitutional democracy with universal suffrage, the product of a popular uprising against a dictator not unlike Hussein — bodes ill for the future.

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