It seems to me that two facts are slowly emerging. The first is that Iran is increasingly serious about becoming a regional power, extending its reach into Lebanon and Iraq, and perhaps attempting a putsch in Syria - for a Shiite crescent. That Iran has sent some very serious missiles into Hezbollah's hands and is egging on Hezbollah for more provocation is yet another signal that Ahmadinejad really does want a regional conflagration, and will brandish his nukes belligerently whenever he gets his hands on them.
The second is that Iraq is in a de facto civil war. I don't know what else to call a hundred deaths a day, and 6,000 every two months. If you occupy a post-totalitarian, bitterly divided country and provide enough troops to adequately police, say, Texas, then you'll get the civil war Rumsfeld asked for and insisted on. And so, thanks to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, the policy of democratization never had a chance of having a peaceful example in Iraq and has instead destabilized the region further - showing for good measure that Islamist parties who gain power democratically will use that power immediately to wage war. Their target will be Jews, and any Muslims who don't subscribe to their vision of the new Caliphate or whatever theocratic lunacy they are currently pursuing.
The scenarios are various. In an escalating civil war in Iraq, the Shiites will surely win - and massacres of Sunnis will become the daily headlines. What we do with our troops at that point will depend on events, but active involvement on one side or another would be a disaster. The potential for a wider Sunni-Shiite war across the Muslim Middle East is also now a real one - like the religious wars in Europe in the seventeenth century, only with far more destructive potential. Some might advise the U.S. to strike a deal with the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria, or put its weight behind the now-very-nervous predominantly Sunni autocracies as a counter-weight to Iran. I'm not so sure. Decades of backing such autocrats helped create the Islamist wave. Picking another losing side looks like short-sighted masochism to me.
I guess what I'm saying is that a period of appalling warfare may now be inevitable, and the only way for the region's tectonic plates to find a new and more stable platform. The real danger is a newly emboldened Islamist region with a chokehold on the world's oil. But that danger already exists, and has existed for a while. 9/11 was a symptom of something far wider - a struggle within the Muslim world for meaning and power in the modern world. We can pretend we can affect that outcome, but I fear we cannot. We can only watch and redouble our efforts to get energy from sources other than from a region on the verge of full-scale conflict.
(Photo: Haitham Mussawi/AFP/Getty.)