The war in Iraq was more than the first expression of the United States' readiness to go to war as an empire. It was also a conceptual experiment that bears profound implications. What the United States learned from this test - as had already been hinted in the smaller war fought in Afghanistan - is that it is the master of the world and can make use of its force almost without interference and without it exacting a true price, neither in casualties nor in economic or strategic assets.
The choice of Iraq was no accident. Iraq was not selected because it posed a strategic threat. Even if it had stocks of chemical weapons, it is hard to view these as a global danger. There are countries that are far more dangerous. The reason Iraq was chosen is that it was relatively weak, because the possibility of getting mired there was small. Hence, it was ideal for a demonstration of the new Clausewitzian concept of war as the continuation of diplomacy.
The Americans went into this war without having concrete support. England is an ally of largely-symbolic significance. The Americans could have got by without the British. The Russians, the European Union and the United Nations were all against the war. It turned out that they were not needed, that their protests were irrelevant, and that their tails were already wagging, instinctively, to greet the victors.
The threats about the awakening strength of the Muslim world also turned out to be empty. The Americans had already discovered this in Afghanistan: You can fight with impunity during the holy month of Ramadan and without a Muslim coalition. There is no "Muslim world." The war of civilizations was decided long ago by Coca-Cola and McDonald's - the John the Baptists of capitalism - and by the savior himself - Microsoft and the Internet.
The American hesitancy was less of a realistic perception than it was a late manifestation of the trauma of Vietnam. Not only the Arab regimes refrained from reacting to the conquest of Baghdad and Karbala, but the supposedly-fanatic Arab masses also stayed home.
The world has a new sheriff who does not hesitate to use his pistol, with or without partners, with or without sanction, with or without justification. The rules have changed. What are the new rules? Well, this question reminds me of the first time I rented a car. I started to look over the leasing contract. "Let me save you the time," the clerk said. "We're always right and you're always wrong."
There is only one country in the world that has not yet fully grasped the implications of the American invasion of Iraq, and that country is Israel. From certain points of view, the invasion worked in Israel's favor. The work of the just is always done by others. Iraq, despite all the bombastic pronouncements by President Bush, is not a strategic threat to the United States or to the free world, but it is definitely a threat to Israel. That threat has been removed, more or less.
However, the invasion of Iraq dramatically lowers Israel's stock as a strategic asset. And not because Israel is not loyal to Uncle Sam; on the contrary, it is a most obedient and faithful vassal.
It's just that Israel is not really needed. Israel's great strategic weight stemmed from its ability to act - or to constitute a potential threat - in a region in which the United States did not want to intervene directly. Israel was a regional mini-power through which it was possible to threaten the Soviet bloc and its satellites, or the Arab world. Israel preserved American interests.
If American involvement becomes direct, there is no further need for mediators. The United States does the dirty work itself. Moreover, as I have argued, American intervention in the Middle East was chosen less for any salient interest (that is, an economic-strategic interest) and more because it is easy to carry out.
In the new world, Arab oil is not insignificant, but its significance is far less than it used to be. From other aspects, the Middle East has mainly nuisance value.
What will be the significance of the structural reduction in Israel's status? It will mean that American readiness to go on paying so as to extricate us from the morass in which we are mired will be diminished. It is unlikely that the United States will exert increasing pressure on Israel in order to achieve durable political solutions. The United States will make do with bad solutions, based on the long-standing American principle of forging poor settlements the consequences of which will be paid by others in the future.
Donald Rumsfeld has no inclination to give prizes to Arafat and his successors. He even likes Ariel Sharon. But the whole thing is starting to cost too much money. American support will be reduced. The economic crisis will deepen. Israeli democracy will continue to be eroded. It won't take much for Israel to become just another Third World country that solicits help from those willing to be generous.
What conclusion should Israel draw from the war? That it should hurry on its own to achieve a good settlement that will make it possible to rehabilitate the economy and start rehabilitating the society and the state of democracy in the country. In the new world, Israel's major asset is not military might but genuine membership in the club of the advanced countries.