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U.S. will triumph, but victory may prove Pyrrhic

WASHINGTON — The disclaimers practically write themselves. Of course I support (and pray for) the Americans fighting in Iraq — and for their commander in chief. I fervently hope for a quick end to the conflict, with a minimum of death and suffering on all sides. I do not doubt that the world will be better off without Saddam Hussein. I'm not interested in making more difficult the brutal task on which America and its allies are embarked.

Did I forget to mention that I hope our side wins? If so, it's because I take an American-led victory as a foregone conclusion.

My fear is that the victory will prove Pyrrhic, in the dictionary meaning of the term — "costly to the point of outweighing expected benefits."

The costs include the erosion of America's credibility in the world. We will prove what was never in doubt: that we are the mightiest nation, militarily, in the history of the world. We will prove, as well, that this administration can be counted on to deliver on its threats.

But can the world — can we at home — count on the people who lead us to tell us the truth about their motives? The shifting rationales offered for launching this war have come across as the spiel of a salesman with a single-product inventory — designed not to find out what the customer wants but how to get him to buy what the salesman is determined to sell.

It is to oust the satan who "killed his own people." It is to punish him for his manifold offenses against the United Nations. It is to remove the tyrant's weapons of mass destruction. It is to liberate the Iraqi people from their despotic leader. And, oh yes, it's to make America safe from international terrorism.

So why are we ratcheting up the security designation from yellow to orange? Why don't we feel safer?

But it's not just in our campaign against terrorism that the cost of the war could outweigh its benefits. The suspension of ordinary liberties in our own country — open-ended detentions without charges, summary deportations, loss of privacy rights and more — all in the name of fighting terrorism is nudging us in the direction of systems we claim to detest. We have made dissent — the fundamental right of Americans — virtually un-American. We are allowing Big Brother a more and more intrusive role in our lives, without major objection from the rank and file of Americans.

We say we are fighting for our national freedom. So why don't we feel freer?

The ultimate monetary cost of the war is unknowable, but this much is known already: We are spending billions of dollars (and were prepared to spend billions more in our embarrassing attempt to purchase allies for the war we were determined to have) that won't, as a result, be available to do some of the things that desperately need doing at home. The gutting of the federal commitment to our children's education, the shifting of welfare, prescription assistance, health care and care for the elderly to the already overburdened states is making life more difficult for those whose lives are difficult enough already.

Well, war always requires sacrifice, doesn't it? Yes, but why must it be the have-nots who sacrifice in this one, while the rich stand to prosper, not only from changes in the tax structure and from the booty of war — oil money and construction contracts for postwar Iraq? Won't it be a lovely irony if we wind up paying more attention to the poor, hungry and ill-educated of Iraq than to our own?

Finally, to take the war on its own terror-fighting terms, it is reasonable to ask whether our military action might not have the effect of spawning more terrorism than it prevents.

If we should have learned anything from our too-cursory attention to the history of Middle East, it is that unavenged defeats fester, sometimes for centuries.

Even if the Iraqi people welcome the allied forces as liberators (a proposition open to much doubt), how long will it be before we come to be seen, by millions of Arabs and Muslims, not as liberators but as religion-tinged crusaders? Will we be smart enough — and lucky enough — to avoid being drawn into some sort of holy war?

Of course, now that we are at war, we have to support our troops and hold the homeland together. But that doesn't mean we have to put our intelligence on hold.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is