NOW THAT the war is over and the killing has stopped, it's surprising that so many politicians, journalists and academics have adopted without question President Bush's assertion that the war was fought to achieve what he calls a "new world order."
That argument is pure nonsense. There is nothing "new." There is no "world" involved and there is certainly no question of "order." Repetition of that phrase must simply be the result of a highly successful public relations campaign.
There is nothing new about a mighty military power utterly vanquishing a weaker power. Nor does the military victory demonstrate that it was a just war. It could have been just or unjust. In any case, what it certainly did show was something quite old -- that might makes right.
The war was fought in the Persian Gulf region. It was not a world war. The coalition that won the war was a creation of the United States, acting with the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council. The enemy was Iraq. There is no evidence that a war against some other country would have attracted such a coalition.
Certainly no such war could have been waged against any of the five permanent members of the Security Council, each of which enjoys the right of veto and the capacity to reject a U.N.-approved military action against itself.
In other words, no such coalition army could be directed against the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain or France. The most that could be involved is an army arrayed against some country that is not one of the five "great powers." So much for world order.
Any kind of order must be accepted by all parties. There is order, for instance, in a baseball game. Each side agrees that the decisions of the umpires are binding -- although players and fans often make it loudly clear that they disagree. There is order in binding labor arbitration. Each side agrees to accept the arbitrator's ruling -- although there is usually grumbling over the ruling.
So if there is no new world order involved, why is it that so many people speak and write as if there were such an order?
Bush may have given us the answer himself when he made this euphoric statement: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." Many others have followed his lead, rejoicing that the United States finally has rejected the yoke of Vietnam.
On one of the talk shows last week, I heard an ebullient woman remark that she felt good again and that she was proud we have proved Saddam Hussein "couldn't kick us around."
What nonsense! We didn't enter this war to keep Iraq's strongman from kicking us around. It was weak, helpless Kuwait that he was kicking around. If our reason for launching an attack on Iraq was to get rid of the "Vietnam syndrome," we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
In any case, maybe it's the "Vietnam syndrome" we are talking about when we speak of a "new world order." Maybe what we really mean by a new world order is that we are Top Dog again. Losing the war in Vietnam was certainly a crushing blow to Americans used to being No. 1.
Perhaps we've been haunted by a nagging fear that our participation in the Vietnam War was morally wrong. Thus, kicking the "Vietnam syndrome" would imply that at last we have done something right, something just, in our pummeling of Iraq.
But can we be sure that what we did in Iraq was right? Our stance in the world is supposed to be upholding moral principles, not proving that we are tough guys who can't be pushed around. In fact, one of the responsibilities that goes with being Top Dog is avoiding becoming a bully.
None of this has anything to do with Saddam Hussein. He is responsible for what he has done. We are responsible for what we have done.
When the euphoria dies and we recognize that there is no new world order, that there is merely reaffirmation of our military might, we will examine what this war has cost us, not only in lives and treasure, but also in our claim to moral leadership.
J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.