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U. S. Military Strategy Vindicated

A High Point in 2 Decades of U.S. Might

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
American troops watched the Ministry of Transportation burn.


WASHINGTON, April 9 — The collapse of government authority in Baghdad, dramatized by the toppling of a colossal statue of President Saddam Hussein, constitutes the high-water mark for a new American determination to use the nation's military might to project its power around the world.

The resurgence began in 1981 with the Reagan administration, which took office with the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis looming large in the national psyche. That had come to symbolize President Jimmy Carter's less robust approach to foreign affairs, and Ronald Reagan campaigned against him on promises to rebuild the military and pursue aggressive policies.

Since then, American troops have gone into full-fledged military action on three continents, using increasingly sophisticated weapons and a wide variety of tactics, usually but not invariably achieving their immediate goals in short order.

American intervention has not been automatic; Washington did nothing much to halt the slaughter in Rwanda and Burundi, for example. It has often been late, as in trying to stay out of Bosnia until 1995. It has occasionally come to grief, as in Somalia in 1993. More often, though, it has succeeded, as in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Kuwait (1991).

The norm, under three Republican presidents as well as a Democrat, has become markedly active.

But projecting strength is not the same as making friends or enhancing national security. The standing of the United States has perhaps never been lower among Islamic nations and nations with restive Islamic minorities than it is today. American esteem has also fallen across much of Europe.

The Iraqi war itself, American alliances with Arab governments considered corrupt or tyrannical by their own people, strong American backing for Israel and perceived American indifference to the Palestinian cause have all combined to tarnish the American image, most importantly in the Middle East.

Triumph in Iraq, if the whole nation goes the way of Basra and Baghdad, would mark the second important American victory in a row, after Afghanistan. But success there, like that in the first gulf war, was incomplete; the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden apparently remains at large, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, as did Mr. Hussein after the powerful allied advance in the first gulf war was halted shy of the Iraqi heartland.

No one knows Mr. Hussein's current whereabouts, and allied forces have found no conclusive evidence of chemical or biological weapons.

It may well be that sweeping, unqualified victory is a thing of the past, except in minuscule conflicts, like the one in Grenada. Not since Alfred Eisenstadt documented the end of World War II with his iconic shot of a sailor locking a nurse in extravagant embrace in Times Square has the United States enjoyed a similar catharsis.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested today that victory in Iraq had the potential to reshape "the future of the region," bringing democracy to countries that have never known it. That would no doubt diminish the prospects of another terrorist attack like those of Sept. 11, 2001, which has always been an underlying if seldom spoken motive for this war.

On the other hand, a hardening of Islamic and Arab resentment into hatred could foster rather than retard terrorism. Much will depend on how Iraq's future unfolds and whether, as Lord Owen, the former British foreign secretary, argued recently, this spring's events lead to "a real rearranging of the diplomatic furniture in the Middle East" and progress on a Palestinian state.

The equation will also be affected by what Washington does next. Hawks in the Bush administration have suggested that a change of government in Syria should be next on the agenda, and James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, said last week that the fighting in Iraq was merely the first episode of World War IV (the cold war having been World War III).

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said last week, "We will not wait to be the next coalition target."

Victory in Iraq would no doubt embolden those who favor attacks on other countries that they suspect of aiding terrorists. But Mr. Bush, facing a campaign next year with the job of nation-building in Iraq incomplete, may be loath to ride the tiger too far, lest he get lost in the jungle.

Today's riveting spectacle in one of Baghdad's principal squares, witnessed on television around the world, no doubt including Damascus, was interpreted in different ways in different places. Here in the United States, the statue's fall was seen as conclusive evidence, in Mr. Rumsfeld's words, that "the mood in the country is, in fact, tipping," with Iraqis finally feeling free to show their hatred of Mr. Hussein.

Many Americans drew a parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist states.

On Arabic-language television channels, however, commentators made much of the fact that it was not Iraqis but American marines, using a cable attached to a tank-recovery vehicle, who actually brought down the big statue. Hoping not to send a politically clumsy signal, the marines quickly stowed the American flag they unfurled at first and replaced it with an old Iraqi flag.

The central question, often posed, has still not been fully answered: How will most Iraqis see the American troops in their midst — the troops who, at least for a while, will have to maintain order, arrest looters and prevent revenge killings? Will they be considered liberators or intruders?

Some of the Iraqis in the streets today were jubilant. Some dragged the head of the shattered statue through the streets, which provided pictures that must have gratified the White House. (Photographs of Mr. Hussein himself, strung up by the heels like the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the final months of World War II, would have been even more welcome.)

But other Iraqis expressed doubts about how they would fare under the allies. However much they disliked Mr. Hussein's government, however grateful they may be for its apparent demise, many Iraqis resent America's Middle East policies as much as other Muslims do.

The danger remains that Baghdad or the entire country could fall into "a downward spiral of violence," as Joseph C. Wilson 4th, who was deputy chief of mission in Iraq in the days immediately before the first gulf war, warned this morning on CNN.

Somehow — through the distribution of aid, through a hundred wise decisions and a thousand generous gestures — the United States must change minds in the months ahead. The most experienced hands in Washington are betting that it will be a harder job, and a longer one, than the military campaign now near an end.

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