The US may delay a war against Iraq at the urging of the United Nations and key allies, but many people around the world are still busy preparing for the conflict and its aftermath, some with dread and some with a kind of enthusiasm.
On the ground, the players seem to be moving inexorably into place. US war planners are arriving at their temporary headquarters in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar as Iraqis buy rifles and ponder whether staying home or heading for a bomb shelter will be the smarter move when the time comes.
Creating the impression that war is inevitable, even as President Bush and other officials insist that it is not, may be a "scare piece," in the phrase of American literary critic Paul Fussell, who has written on the often sanitized horrors of combat. But it also disconcerts him to watch a nation calmly prepare for something as chaotic and horrific as war. "I find it impossible to believe except as a kind of fantasy or an attempt to frighten the other side," he says.
On the other hand, observes the British military historian, Sir John Keegan, war "is much more chaotic if you don't prepare."
From Washington to London to Tel Aviv - and in many other places - anticipating the effects of what will likely be America's most significant military engagement since the Vietnam war has become a subject of intense endeavor.
At the UN and private relief agencies, aid workers are girding for the aftermath. An internal UN assessment of "likely humanitarian scenarios," leaked late last month, foresees that up to a half-million Iraqis will require "treatment for traumatic injuries."
US officials are crafting a new strategic vision for the Middle East, one promising to do better at promoting democracy, in part to justify US demands for "regime change" in Iraq. Other experts see in the US campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein evidence that America has begun to embrace the idea that it leads an "empire."
Some interested parties are clearly relishing the prospect of the US toppling Hussein and attempting to reinvent the only Middle Eastern state endowed with both oil and a sizable, well-educated populace. Iraqi exiles are scrambling to create a role for themselves in the government of a "liberated" Iraq. An Israeli academic told an audience last week that there were so many likely positive outcomes to a US-led war against Iraq that it was worth praying for. But political scientist Efraim Inbar added a note of caution: "We must hope the Americans do know what they're doing."
Even amid this global discourse, some are saying the discussions are not broad enough. Yale economics professor William Nordhaus faults the Bush administration for not considering - out loud, at any rate - the economic impact of the conflict. In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, he calculates that waging war against Iraq and then rebuilding the country will cost anywhere from $120 billion to $1.6 trillion depending on whether things go favorably or unfavorably for the US and its allies.
For context, Professor Nordhaus notes that the cost of the 1991 Gulf war, in 2002 dollars, was about $80 billion. "[T]he Bush administration has made no serious public estimate of the costs of the coming war," writes Nordhaus, who was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Carter administration. "The public and the Congress are unable to make informed judgments about the realistic costs and benefits ... when none are given."
There seems to be no shortage of debate about the war's strategic implications. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor of international relations, argues that "the time has come for us as Americans ... to acknowledge the reality that we do preside over an empire of a sort. "The aim of this empire, he says, is to preserve and expand American freedom and prosperity, in part by promoting secular democracy and free markets abroad.
In that context, he told participants at a conference last week at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv that the US campaign can be seen as "war to establish a bridgehead of American power to transform Iraq into ... the first Arab democracy" and thus further the interests of the American empire.
Richard Haass, director of the State Department policy planning staff, spoke in similar if less imperial terms to a Washington audience in early December. "Freed from the weight of oppression," he said, "Iraqis will be able to share in the progress and prosperity of our time." Mr. Haass also said US "efforts to promote democracy throughout the Muslim world have sometimes been halting and incomplete," in order to serve other US interests, such as the steady supply of oil, but that this "democratic exception" would have to end.
For Mr. Fussell, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, the most troubling aspect of the run-up to war is the lack of criticism amid evidence of so much preparation. "Thoughtless patriotism has suddenly become popular," he says. Another factor may be the ignorance of most Americans about the nature of war. "They have no idea what war means," Fussell says. "They think it means heading drone airplanes toward ignorant peasants and hoping that it will be all right."
Mr. Keegan, the defense editor of Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, says he is "suspicious of people talking about the nonmilitary consequences" of a war. "The trouble with the antiwar parties is that they try to reinforce their position by making presumptions about the costs of the war ... and they don't know any more than you or I do." A supporter of Hussein's removal, he is unperturbed by worries about mass casualties, environmental destruction or a high price tag. "The war will be over so quickly there won't be any destruction," Keegan says.