Even before US forces could establish order in the cities of Iraq and bring humanitarian relief to its people, the Bush Administration unleashed a barrage of threats against Syria, accusing it of aiding Islamic fighters in Iraq and possessing chemical weapons. Administration officials suggest they are sending an appropriate warning to Iraq’s neighbor that certain behavior will not be tolerated. To millions of Arabs watching the events unfolding in Iraq, however, these actions are confirmation that the United States has a larger agenda in the Middle East that has little to do with the security and well-being of the Iraqi people.

Instead of rushing on to threaten its next potential target of pre-emptive war, the US should focus its energy on the reconstruction of Iraq, since it will be judged for years to come by how well it handles that task. Judging by the first weeks, there are reasons to worry that the Administration has failed to understand the nature of that challenge. If it wishes to legitimize US military action, it will have to draw on international support to bring order to the Iraqi people and to make good on its claim that it will bring them democracy. Yet Richard Perle revealed the arrant indifference of Administration hawks when he said recently, “What we have won on the battlefield is the right to establish consistent policies that are for the benefit of the people of Iraq.” Uncle knows best.

After the regime’s authority collapsed, seething ethnic and religious rivalries and festering hatreds boiled over. In a cultural atrocity unparalleled in our age, looters vandalized the priceless antiquities in Baghdad’s National Museum and burned the National Library, where reposed the records of the world’s most ancient civilization. The US government had been repeatedly urged by museum directors, archeologists and cultural leaders to protect Iraq’s archeological treasures as required by international law. Yet the commanders who had immediately posted guards at the Iraqi oil ministry somehow were unable to find soldiers to stop vandals from plundering the irreplaceable heritage of humankind. (Nor were they able to protect hospitals from pillagers of desperately needed medical supplies.) The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon had expected before the war that Saddam’s fall “would usher in a period of chaos and lawlessness,” yet it chose to go with a light, fast-moving invasion force unequipped to deal with civil disorders. Order is slowly being restored, but the explosion of destructive anarchy and lack of coherent US policies has stirred up distrust among the Iraqis, whose support will be needed to restore services and build a stable government.

Although the US military rapidly secured Iraq’s oilfields before Saddam’s troops could burn them, its technical specialists were unable to locate any weapons of mass destruction during more than three weeks of war, when they could have menaced US soldiers; nor was any evidence uncovered of Iraqi links to Al Qaeda. Thus the claimed basis for the invasion has yet to be established. Of course, WMDs may well be unearthed, but the question remains: If Saddam didn’t (or couldn’t) use them in self-

defense, how can it be said he would have pre-emptively launched them against America or Israel?

If such weapons are found, under the Chemical Weapons Convention they should be verified and destroyed by international inspectors. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency should also be allowed to return to Iraq and continue their work in accordance with the nonproliferation treaty.

Those who opposed the war must refuse to be browbeaten or silenced by the gloating “I told you so” chorus on the right (and center) and must continue to hammer at the false premises that underpinned the war. The reality is Bush deceived the American people when he said the war was necessary to national security, and in so doing he has abused the powers of his office, undermined the Constitution and flouted public opinion. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that a majority of Americans oppose Bush’s pre-emption doctrine. It has no basis or justification in international law–as Arab and world opinion, and Kofi Annan, agree. And it sends a message to states facing US threats that they should quickly acquire nuclear weapons in self-defense.

The only claim of legitimacy the Administration can make for the war it misled America into is that it was a humanitarian war to liberate an oppressed people. But to sustain such a claim to a skeptical world, the Administration must prove that its intentions for Iraq are honorable, and it can do that only by inviting the UN Security Council’s full involvement–political as well as humanitarian–in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Beyond that, the Administration should cool its threats against Syria. It must rejoin the international community and work with it to bring democracy, freedom and human rights to Iraq, and peace to the entire region–starting with a vigorous push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.