In the weeks leading up to the Iraq war, neoconservatives in and around the Bush Administration counseled the President against seeking a second United Nations Security Council resolution, arguing that the success of the war it was about to launch would provide legitimacy enough in the real world. Not only would the war remove a clear and present threat to US national security, it would also create irresistible pressure for democracy in the Arab world, pave the way for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, intimidate Iran and Syria into falling in line with Washington policy and strike another blow against terrorism in that part of the world. Thus impressed with the display of American power, critics at home and abroad would have no choice but to sign on to the strategy of remaking the Middle East.

One year later, these claims look more like fantasy than considered policy judgments. The war’s legacy has turned out to be much closer to what the Administration’s critics warned it would be: a costly and reckless abuse of American power that has badly damaged US security, destabilized the region and undercut America’s position in the world.

The Administration’s case for war rested principally on the notion that because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had possible ties to terrorist groups, it constituted a threat to our national security, which could not be entrusted to the UN. These claims, including the disparagement of the UN inspection process, have proven to be far off the mark, more the product of a propagandistic drive to war than a reasoned analysis of Iraq’s military capabilities. As a result, one of the first casualties of the war has been America’s reputation as a responsible power. How lasting the damage will be to US credibility is not clear. What is clear is that in lying about the Iraqi threat, the Administration diverted resources from other more urgent needs–from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the campaign against Al Qaeda–and in the process created an array of new security threats, including those that come with its role as an occupying power.

Notwithstanding the recent agreement on an interim Iraqi constitution (which left fundamental differences unresolved), the Administration still does not have a viable strategy for restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people or for insuring their security, let alone for creating a stable democracy. For many ordinary Iraqis, their country is more dangerous (if also freer) than it was before the war, and the US occupation means not the beginning of a liberal democratic future but the likely prelude to either a Shiite-dominated Islamic government or to chaos and civil war. Whatever trust or confidence Iraqis had in the occupation was squandered early by the inability of US forces to restore law and order and by a reconstruction process that seemed geared more to awarding fat contracts to the Administration’s friends than to restoring services or creating jobs for Iraqis.

Now the United States seems caught in a dilemma–if it makes a rapid exit, it will leave Iraq with increasing civil strife; but the longer it stays the more it will be the target of Iraqi anger. This is why the Administration and the Iraqis have turned to the UN to find a way out.

Security and democracy in the larger region have fared little better. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict grinds on, with Ariel Sharon and his allies in Israel even bolder in their plans to expropriate more Palestinian land in the West Bank. As long as Israeli settlers and troops are occupying Palestinian land, Washington’s commitment to democracy will be seen as hypocritical. Elsewhere, in the short run, the principal beneficiaries of the war have been not liberal democrats but conservative mullahs and Islamic revolutionaries. In Iran the mullahs rigged recent elections; in Kuwait and Pakistan supporters of Osama bin Laden have gained electoral strength; in Riyadh, bombs are going off so frequently it calls into question the future of the Saudi regime. The Administration now talks about a generation-long commitment to democratic reform in the region, but its actions have undercut US legitimacy. Moreover, it is widely understood that Iraq is likely to absorb US resources and energy for years to come, leaving little in the way of constructive and practical support for true Arab reformers.

At the outset of the war, the Bush Administration saw itself as the future master of the greater Middle East. But instead it has exposed the limits of American power (and virtue) and has made US interests hostage to the most radical forces in the region. What is worse, it seems to have no idea how to deal with the complex forces it has unleashed with its occupation of Iraq–except to rail against the “terrorists” it helped create. A Shiite-dominated government in Iraq may be inevitable, but the Administration does not seem to have been prepared for the reaction of the Sunni minority or how events in Iraq might affect the delicate ethnic and tribal balance in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia.

This Administration was repeatedly warned that war can have unintended consequences, and in this case it could set off civil wars in the region. And, by occupying a country in the Arab and Islamic heartland, the United States has assured the spread of bin Ladenism (even if bin Laden is captured). Securing greater US control over the world oil supply was an unstated goal of the war, but, ironically, by setting loose destabilizing forces, this Administration has brought the world closer to a full-blown energy crisis.

We can take some comfort from the fact that with US forces tied down in Iraq, the Administration is no longer able to pursue its reckless course of regime change and must now defer to Europe in dealing with Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria. We can also take comfort from the fact that it has turned to the UN for help with the transfer of sovereignty and that the UN has been vindicated in its approach to disarming Iraq and offering a framework that could have avoided war in the first place. But this is small comfort compared with the great harm the Bush Administration has inflicted on the region and on US security. And certainly it is no comfort to the families of the many Americans and Iraqis who have paid the ultimate price in an illegal and unnecessary war.