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1. The doctrine

WASHINGTON - At the conclusion of its second week, the war to liberate Iraq wasn't looking good. Not even in Washington. The assumption of a swift collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime had itself collapsed. The presupposition that the Iraqi dictatorship would crumble as soon as mighty America entered the country proved unfounded. The Shi'ites didn't rise up, the Sunnis fought fiercely. Iraqi guerrilla warfare found the American generals unprepared and endangered their overextended supply lines. Nevertheless, 70 percent of the American people continued to support the war; 60 percent thought victory was certain; 74 percent expressed confidence in President George W. Bush.

Washington is a small city. It's a place of human dimensions. A kind of small town that happens to run an empire. A small town of government officials and members of Congress and personnel of research institutes and journalists who pretty well all know one another. Everyone is busy intriguing against everyone else; and everyone gossips about everyone else.

In the course of the past year, a new belief has emerged in the town: the belief in war against Iraq. That ardent faith was disseminated by a small group of 25 or 30 neoconservatives, almost all of them Jewish, almost all of them intellectuals (a partial list: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Eliot Abrams, Charles Krauthammer), people who are mutual friends and cultivate one another and are convinced that political ideas are a major driving force of history. They believe that the right political idea entails a fusion of morality and force, human rights and grit. The philosophical underpinnings of the Washington neoconservatives are the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Edmund Burke. They also admire Winston Churchill and the policy pursued by Ronald Reagan. They tend to read reality in terms of the failure of the 1930s (Munich) versus the success of the 1980s (the fall of the Berlin Wall).

Are they wrong? Have they committed an act of folly in leading Washington to Baghdad? They don't think so. They continue to cling to their belief. They are still pretending that everything is more or less fine. That things will work out. Occasionally, though, they seem to break out in a cold sweat. This is no longer an academic exercise, one of them says, we are responsible for what is happening. The ideas we put forward are now affecting the lives of millions of people. So there are moments when you're scared. You say, Hell, we came to help, but maybe we made a mistake.

2. William Kristol

Has America bitten off more than it can chew? Bill Kristol says no. True, the press is very negative, but when you examine the facts in the field you see that there is no terrorism, no mass destruction, no attacks on Israel. The oil fields in the south have been saved, air control has been achieved, American forces are deployed 50 miles from Baghdad. So, even if mistakes were made here and there, they are not serious. America is big enough to handle that. Kristol hasn't the slightest doubt that in the end, General Tommy Franks will achieve his goals. The 4th Cavalry Division will soon enter the fray, and another division is on its way from Texas. So it's possible that instead of an elegant war with 60 killed in two weeks it will be a less elegant affair with a thousand killed in two months, but nevertheless Bill Kristol has no doubt at all that the Iraq Liberation War is a just war, an obligatory war.

Kristol is pleasant-looking, of average height, in his late forties. In the past 18 months he has used his position as editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard and his status as one of the leaders of the neoconservative circle in Washington to induce the White House to do battle against Saddam Hussein. Because Kristol is believed to exercise considerable influence on the president, Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he is also perceived as having been instrumental in getting Washington to launch this all-out campaign against Baghdad. Sitting behind the stacks of books that cover his desk at the offices of the Weekly Standard in Northwest Washington, he tries to convince me that he is not worried. It is simply inconceivable to him that America will not win. In that event, the consequences would be catastrophic. No one wants to think seriously about that possibility.

What is the war about? I ask. Kristol replies that at one level it is the war that George Bush is talking about: a war against a brutal regime that has in its possession weapons of mass destruction. But at a deeper level it is a greater war, for the shaping of a new Middle East. It is a war that is intended to change the political culture of the entire region. Because what happened on September 11, 2001, Kristol says, is that the Americans looked around and saw that the world is not what they thought it was. The world is a dangerous place. Therefore the Americans looked for a doctrine that would enable them to cope with this dangerous world. And the only doctrine they found was the neoconservative one.

That doctrine maintains that the problem with the Middle East is the absence of democracy and of freedom. It follows that the only way to block people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden is to disseminate democracy and freedom. To change radically the cultural and political dynamics that creates such people. And the way to fight the chaos is to create a new world order that will be based on freedom and human rights - and to be ready to use force in order to consolidate this new world. So that, really, is what the war is about. It is being fought to consolidate a new world order, to create a new Middle East.

Does that mean that the war in Iraq is effectively a neoconservative war? That's what people are saying, Kristol replies, laughing. But the truth is that it's an American war. The neoconservatives succeeded because they touched the bedrock of America. The thing is that America has a profound sense of mission. America has a need to offer something that transcends a life of comfort, that goes beyond material success. Therefore, because of their ideals, the Americans accepted what the neoconservatives proposed. They didn't want to fight a war over interests, but over values. They wanted a war driven by a moral vision. They wanted to hitch their wagon to something bigger than themselves.

Does this moral vision mean that after Iraq will come the turns of Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

Kristol says that he is at odds with the administration on the question of Saudi Arabia. But his opinion is that it is impossible to let Saudi Arabia just continue what it is doing. It is impossible to accept the anti-Americanism it is disseminating. The fanatic Wahhabism that Saudi Arabia engenders is undermining the stability of the entire region. It's the same with Egypt, he says: we mustn't accept the status quo there. For Egypt, too, the horizon has to be liberal democracy.

It has to be understood that in the final analysis, the stability that the corrupt Arab despots are offering is illusory. Just as the stability that Yitzhak Rabin received from Yasser Arafat was illusory. In the end, none of these decadent dictatorships will endure. The choice is between extremist Islam, secular fascism or democracy. And because of September 11, American understands that. America is in a position where it has no choice. It is obliged to be far more aggressive in promoting democracy. Hence this war. It's based on the new American understanding that if the United States does not shape the world in its image, the world will shape the United States in its own image.

3. Charles Krauthammer

Is this going to turn into a second Vietnam? Charles Krauthammer says no. There is no similarity to Vietnam. Unlike in the 1960s, there is no anti-establishment subculture in the United States now. Unlike in the 1960s, there is now an abiding love of the army in the United States. Unlike in the 1960s, there is a determined president, one with character, in the White House. And unlike in the 1960s, Americans are not deterred from making sacrifices. That is the sea-change that took place here on September 11, 2001. Since that morning, Americans have understood that if they don't act now and if weapons of mass destruction reach extremist terrorist organizations, millions of Americans will die. Therefore, because they understand that those others want to kill them by the millions, the Americans prefer to take to the field of battle and fight, rather than sit idly by and die at home.

Charles Krauthammer is handsome, swarthy and articulate. In his spacious office on 19th Street in Northwest Washington, he sits upright in a black wheelchair. Although his writing tends to be gloomy, his mood now is elevated. The well-known columnist (Washington Post, Time, Weekly Standard) has no real doubts about the outcome of the war that he promoted for 18 months. No, he does not accept the view that he helped lead America into the new killing fields between the Tigris and the Euphrates. But it is true that he is part of a conceptual stream that had something to offer in the aftermath of September 11. Within a few weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he had singled out Baghdad in his columns as an essential target. And now, too, he is convinced that America has the strength to pull it off. The thought that America will not win has never even crossed his mind.

What is the war about? It's about three different issues. First of all, this is a war for disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. That's the basis, the self-evident cause, and it is also sufficient cause in itself. But beyond that, the war in Iraq is being fought to replace the demonic deal America cut with the Arab world decades ago. That deal said: you will send us oil and we will not intervene in your internal affairs. Send us oil and we will not demand from you what we are demanding of Chile, the Philippines, Korea and South Africa.

That deal effectively expired on September 11, 2001, Krauthammer says. Since that day, the Americans have understood that if they allow the Arab world to proceed in its evil ways - suppression, economic ruin, sowing despair - it will continue to produce more and more bin Ladens. America thus reached the conclusion that it has no choice: it has to take on itself the project of rebuilding the Arab world. Therefore, the Iraq war is really the beginning of a gigantic historical experiment whose purpose is to do in the Arab world what was done in Germany and Japan after World War II.

It's an ambitious experiment, Krauthammer admits, maybe even utopian, but not unrealistic. After all, it is inconceivable to accept the racist assumption that the Arabs are different from all other human beings, that the Arabs are incapable of conducting a democratic way of life.

However, according to the Jewish-American columnist, the present war has a further importance. If Iraq does become pro-Western and if it becomes the focus of American influence, that will be of immense geopolitical importance. An American presence in Iraq will project power across the region. It will suffuse the rebels in Iran with courage and strength, and it will deter and restrain Syria. It will accelerate the processes of change that the Middle East must undergo.

Isn't the idea of preemptive war a dangerous one that rattles the world order?

There is no choice, Krauthammer replies. In the 21st century we face a new and singular challenge: the democratization of mass destruction. There are three possible strategies in the face of that challenge: appeasement, deterrence and preemption. Because appeasement and deterrence will not work, preemption is the only strategy left. The United States must implement an aggressive policy of preemption. Which is exactly what it is now doing in Iraq. That is what Tommy Franks' soldiers are doing as we speak.

And what if the experiment fails? What if America is defeated?

This war will enhance the place of America in the world for the coming generation, Krauthammer says. Its outcome will shape the world for the next 25 years. There are three possibilities. If the United States wins quickly and without a bloodbath, it will be a colossus that will dictate the world order. If the victory is slow and contaminated, it will be impossible to go on to other Arab states after Iraq. It will stop there. But if America is beaten, the consequences will be catastrophic. Its deterrent capability will be weakened, its friends will abandon it and it will become insular. Extreme instability will be engendered in the Middle East.

You don't really want to think about what will happen, Krauthammer says looking me straight in the eye. But just because that's so, I am positive we will not lose. Because the administration understands the implications. The president understands that everything is riding on this. So he will throw everything we've got into this. He will do everything that has to be done. George W. Bush will not let America lose.

4. Thomas Friedman

Is this an American Lebanon War? Tom Friedman says he is afraid it is. He was there, in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, in the summer of 1982, and he remembers it well. So he sees the lines of resemblance clearly. General Ahmed Chalabi (the Shi'ite leader that the neoconservatives want to install as the leader of a free Iraq) in the role of Bashir Jemayel. The Iraqi opposition in the role of the Phalange. Richard Perle and the conservative circle around him as Ariel Sharon. And a war that is at bottom a war of choice. A war that wants to utilize massive force in order to establish a new order.

Tom Friedman, The New York Times columnist, did not oppose the war. On the contrary. He too was severely shaken by September 11, he too wants to understand where these desperate fanatics are coming from who hate America more than they love their own lives. And he too reached the conclusion that the status quo in the Middle East is no longer acceptable. The status quo is terminal. And therefore it is urgent to foment a reform in the Arab world.

Some things are true even if George Bush believes them, Friedman says with a smile. And after September 11, it's impossible to tell Bush to drop it, ignore it. There was a certain basic justice in the overall American feeling that told the Arab world: we left you alone for a long time, you played with matches and in the end we were burned. So we're not going to leave you alone any longer.

He is sitting in a large rectangular room in the offices of The New York Times in northwest Washington, on the corner of 17th Street. One wall of the room is a huge map of the world. Hunched over his computer, he reads me witty lines from the article that will be going to press in two hours. He polishes, sharpens, plays word games. He ponders what's right to say now, what should be left for a later date. Turning to me, he says that democracies look soft until they're threatened. When threatened, they become very hard. Actually, the Iraq war is a kind of Jenin on a huge scale. Because in Jenin, too, what happened was that the Israelis told the Palestinians, We left you here alone and you played with matches until suddenly you blew up a Passover seder in Netanya. And therefore we are not going to leave you along any longer. We will go from house to house in the Casbah. And from America's point of view, Saddam's Iraq is Jenin. This war is a defensive shield. It follows that the danger is the same: that like Israel, America will make the mistake of using only force.

This is not an illegitimate war, Friedman says. But it is a very presumptuous war. You need a great deal of presumption to believe that you can rebuild a country half a world from home. But if such a presumptuous war is to have a chance, it needs international support. That international legitimacy is essential so you will have enough time and space to execute your presumptuous project. But George Bush didn't have the patience to glean international support. He gambled that the war would justify itself, that we would go in fast and conquer fast and that the Iraqis would greet us with rice and the war would thus be self-justifying. That did not happen. Maybe it will happen next week, but in the meantime it did not happen.

When I think about what is going to happen, I break into a sweat, Friedman says. I see us being forced to impose a siege on Baghdad. And I know what kind of insanity a siege on Baghdad can unleash. The thought of house-to-house combat in Baghdad without international legitimacy makes me lose my appetite. I see American embassies burning. I see windows of American businesses shattered. I see how the Iraqi resistance to America connects to the general Arab resistance to America and the worldwide resistance to America. The thought of what could happen is eating me up.

What George Bush did, Friedman says, is to show us a splendid mahogany table: the new democratic Iraq. But when you turn the table over, you see that it has only one leg. This war is resting on one leg. But on the other hand, anyone who thinks he can defeat George Bush had better think again. Bush will never give in. That's not what he's made of. Believe me, you don't want to be next to this guy when he thinks he's being backed into a corner. I don't suggest that anyone who holds his life dear mess with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.

Is the Iraq war the great neoconservative war? It's the war the neoconservatives wanted, Friedman says. It's the war the neoconservatives marketed. Those people had an idea to sell when September 11 came, and they sold it. Oh boy, did they sell it. So this is not a war that the masses demanded. This is a war of an elite. Friedman laughs: I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.

Still, it's not all that simple, Friedman retracts. It's not some fantasy the neoconservatives invented. It's not that 25 people hijacked America. You don't take such a great nation into such a great adventure with Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard and another five or six influential columnists. In the final analysis, what fomented the war is America's over-reaction to September 11. The genuine sense of anxiety that spread in America after September 11. It is not only the neoconservatives who led us to the outskirts of Baghdad. What led us to the outskirts of Baghdad is a very American combination of anxiety and hubris.