The Bush administration has it all planned out. War will lead to the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The fall of the dictator will usher democracy into Iraq. Then the contagion of freedom will spread throughout the region, bringing its people prosperity, taking the wind out of the sails of terrorism and securing American interests.
Well, it may be right. But it may as easily be seriously wrong. Wars can lead to sweeping changes on a world scale, as some in the administration believe will happen. But there is a sting, too, in the historical tail: War's changes are unpredictable. That's the lesson of World War I, which set the stage for the creation of the modern Middle East.
A century ago there was no Iraq, no Israel, Jordan or Kuwait, no republics of Lebanon, Syria or Turkey. It was war that swept away the old Ottoman Empire and allowed European and American statesmen to conjure up states where none had existed before. Yet ultimately, they were unable to bring their plans to fruition or create the stability and order they dreamed of. None of those who entered the war came close to predicting the world order that emerged at the other end.
President Woodrow Wilson had brought the U.S. into the conflict to make the world "safe for democracy." In his mind, this meant splitting the Ottoman Empire into independent, self-governing democracies. But as Wilson found, it is easier to break things up than to put them back together again. During the war, the U.S. was one of the strongest supporters of independence for small ethnic groups like the Armenians and the Kurds. But words are one thing, deeds another. There were no American troops in the region; the other great powers wanted only to bring theirs home.
Without allies, the Armenians were no match for the Turks, and later the Kurds were crushed as well.
Iraq was a new country cobbled together from several Ottoman provinces, its lines drawn by the Europeans. For a time, the British were prepared to use force: They had economic interests in the region and a world empire to run. But faced with widespread revolt, the British appetite for direct military rule quickly dwindled, and they soon handed over power to the loyal Saudi Prince Faisal, who was installed in Baghdad.
Faisal had no illusions about the difficulties he faced: "There is not yet in Iraq an Iraqi people," he wrote. In fact, the new state was an amalgam of peoples -- Kurds, Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and others -- and was not nearly as stable as its creators had hoped it would be. The Kurds opposed first the British, then Faisal. Kurdish leaders were exiled, and they, like the other minorities, ultimately bowed to superior force.
But though he defeated them in the short term, Faisal's top-heavy state, imposed by foreigners and led by outsiders, never won legitimacy in the eyes of its disparate constituents and was toppled by the military coup some decades later that eventually brought the Baath Party and ultimately Saddam Hussein to power.
So much for the dream of a "peace to end all peace."
Now, President Bush has picked up the mantle of Wilson and is pledging to fight for a newly democratic Middle East. But if the fight really is for democracy, it will not be over soon. To avoid the outcome of World War I, American troops would have to remain in the region for a very long time, and the dilemmas they would face are numerous: how to remain there while avoiding accusations of imperialism; how to bring in democracy without leading to political disintegration; above all, how to make sure that a democratic Iraq will be obedient, or at least friendly, to American interests. Democracies give voice to a people's sense of its own interests, not to someone else's.
Nearly a century ago, Wilson learned the hard way that in international affairs, there is a great gulf between wishing something were so and making it so. But at least Wilson, the architect of the League of Nations, worked for peace and would never have deliberately started the war that he eventually helped to end.
The Bush administration may share his universal ambitions, but its extraordinary confidence that it can use war as an instrument of change is something new.
Will the architects of this war be more successful in shaping the course of events than their predecessors in the early 20th century? Or are they committing an act of monumental folly? One thing is certain: They have changed the way the U.S. is perceived around the world forever.
Mark Mazower is a history professor at Birkbeck College in London.