America's weapons can strike with unprecedented precision. Yet war remains an imprecise tool. If and when war comes with Iraq, the Pentagon will be able to target its bombs with pinpoint accuracy. But no one can predict with any accuracy what will happen after those bombs destroy their targets.
Overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might encourage democracy across the Mideast, as President Bush hopes, or ignite a surge in anti-American fundamentalism. It might inspire new respect for American power or new resentment of American willfulness.
Maybe the most important unanswered question is whether an invasion would intimidate or incite the other charter members of Bush's axis of evil, North Korea and Iran.
Inside the administration, there's a widespread hope that a fierce display of U.S. firepower in Iraq, following the swift toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will put the fear of God -- or at least of the 82nd Airborne -- into Pyongyang and Tehran. "Getting Iraq right ... does have a self-policing effect" on other countries, says one ranking administration official.
But skeptics worry that Iran and North Korea may reach a very different conclusion from Hussein's likely demise. "I think the message they'll take is exactly the opposite: 'Holy mackerel, America can go anywhere, any time, and we have to get ourselves the biggest stick we can,' " says Jon Wolfsthal, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
To the skeptics, it's no coincidence that both of those countries lately have been brandishing the biggest stick of all -- nuclear weapons.
While the world has been distracted by the confrontation with Iraq, North Korea has moved in almost every way imaginable to accelerate its nuclear weapons program. And Iran chose this moment to reveal that it is much further along than anyone expected toward developing the enriched uranium it would need to make its own bombs. Rather than intimidating North Korea and Iran into abandoning their drive for nuclear weapons, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the possible attack against Iraq appears to "have been a catalyst" for their programs.
Once the shooting stops in Baghdad, the challenge of containing those threats is likely to rise toward the top of the priority list for the United States and the world. And as that focus shifts, the first question may be whether the likely invasion of Iraq provides a model for dealing with either North Korea or Iran.
Administration officials, and the neoconservative foreign policy analysts who have influenced Bush's thinking, insist that Washington shouldn't rule out the option of military action in either case. "Once you've done it in Iraq, there's no way for it not to be a possibility, a model for something else," says Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank. In one Pentagon document last year, Feinstein noted recently, the Bush administration suggested that it might even use nuclear weapons to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in North Korea, Iran and other countries.
Yet Feinstein, Schmitt and most experts agree that military solutions look much less promising in North Korea and Iran than they do in Iraq.
Iran has decentralized its nuclear program to the point where it would be very difficult to disable in an attack. Down the road, the United States, or conceivably Israel, could target the facility Iran is constructing at Natanz to enrich uranium using a huge array of centrifuges.
But David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, says that even if someone obliterated that complex, Iran would retain, in unknown locations, facilities that build the components for the centrifuges it is assembling in Natanz. As long as Iran can continue constructing the components for centrifuges, he says, it could eventually "build another centrifuge assembly facility in a site you wouldn't discover."
An attack on the nuclear reprocessing facility in Yongbyon would set back North Korea's program more severely. But that option is problematic because of the risk that North Korea, with its massive forward deployment of artillery -- not to mention the nuclear weapons it is already believed to possess -- might incinerate Seoul in response.
In the Middle East, the overthrow of Hussein might provide the opportunity for a more subtle military statement. Some neo-con thinkers believe that the United States should garrison a permanent force in Iraq after deposing Hussein. That would keep not only Iran, but also Syria, looking over their shoulders. But the Pentagon is currently cool on the idea, the ranking administration official notes, because a permanent base could send the signal that America is pulling the strings of a post-Hussein government.
Beyond all these military calculations are political constraints. Even a president as determined as Bush may be reluctant to blow the trumpet again very soon after Iraq. No matter how well and quickly the fighting goes, the war has already been a diplomatic bloodbath.
Absent an irresistible provocation, presumably from North Korea, the price of flexing U.S. muscle again could be steep: more resentment abroad, another rallying cry for terrorists. If the United States launches another preemptive strike after Iraq, predicts Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), "we are going to have to close half the embassies around the world because we can't protect them."
Yet it's hard to imagine that a massive demonstration of strength in Iraq won't capture the attention of Iran and North Korea, as the administration hopes.
The challenge for Bush may be to recognize that the real opening created by military success in Iraq will be diplomatic; having waved the big stick, in other words, it may be time for speaking more softly.
With all of these countries, progress won't come easy. But it's possible to envision negotiations that trade better relations -- and guarantees against preemptive American attack -- for an end to the activities that most concern us: the development of weapons of mass destruction and alliances with terrorists. In Iran, there's also an opportunity to bolster local forces of reform.
The Bush team is probably right that after Iraq, rogue regimes will fear us more than they do today. But that fear may well provoke more conflict, not less, unless Bush, to borrow Winston Churchill's phrase, follows war-war with jaw-jaw.
Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.