It's 2010. Computers are built into shirts, the cars are all hybrids, Palestine is on the West Bank, Eminem is doing lounge in Vegas, and you're paying off student loans with a night job serving Bubble Tea to VR-addicted Irish tourists at Borders&Noble-Ikea-Starbucks Delicatessen-R-Us.
Iraq is a prosperous democracy. After a brief war stretching through a few months of 2003, American and British forces easily crushed its demoralized and ill-funded military (Saddam escaped to a Kenyan villa the night before his regime finally collapsed), and the transition government, after rebuilding what needed to be rebuilt, gave way to general elections two years later. Dubya scratched out the red crayon covering the country on his map, and rescribbled a nice big swath of green.
With its vast oil reserves and secular Muslim traditions, Iraq quickly became a beacon for political refugees throughout the region, and now that the U.S. had no obligation to Saudi Arabian oil, it could place greater pressure on the dictatorship to reform - indeed, the U.S.-Iraqi partnership had the effect of prodding regional religious governments in a direction they've never been prodded before: not toward Islamofascism or soulless consumption, but toward an utterly new, peculiarly Middle Eastern blend of liberal democracy. Now that there was a clear, tangible Third Way, it was only a matter of time before Iraq's neighbors followed suit.
Okay, back to reality.
Regardless of the eventual benefits, theoretical or not, there are a few quite certain costs war will bring:
First, people will die. Lots of people, far more than perished in the 9/11 attacks - jingoists and peaceful dissidents, loyal commanders and draftees with soiled pants, doctors, lawyers, scientists, merchants, farmers, parents, and children. And that's just on the Iraqi side - lots of Americans will die in protracted urban battles; in all likelihood, people you know will be killed. We tend to forget that war is hell, and this war will be particularly hellish because Iraq cannot fail to have learned the lesson of our 1991 invasion: stay out of the open spaces, do whatever is necessary to prevent the Americans from simply demolishing tanks from afar. Time and again, the talking heads have prophesied: this will be a war fought soldier-to-soldier in the streets of Karbala and Baghdad.
Second, it will be expensive as hell, and the U.S. will be footing the whole bill - as much as $200 billion, more than 25 times what the first Gulf War cost us and close to ten percent of the federal budget. That extra spending will come at a time when we're already deeply in deficit, and the money will be taken from taxes, from hospitals, and, of course, from schools. Expect greater tuition hikes than any we've seen in the past few years.
And this is if everything goes right (when was the last time that happened in a federal project?). The fact of that matter is that the very thing that could make invading Iraq so profitable (in economic and human terms) also makes it terribly risky: the entire middle east is entangled in a delicate balance, and war will upset that balance. What if Saddam Hussein, cornered, with no possible way of preserving his power (and therefore no diplomatic constraints on anything he does) unleashes weapons of mass destruction on American troops or Israeli civilians? What if the Iraqi civilian casualties are especially heavy? The suffering will be broadcast on satellite TV for the world to watch; what if anti-American sentiment, already virulent across the Muslim world (and upspiking sharply with each mildly unpopular international incident) crosses a threshold, what if angry mobs force U.S.-allied middle eastern governments to maintain their credibility the only way they know how: by retreating further into reactionary fundamentalism? Worse, what if the mobs overthrow a government, as they overthrew the Iranian Shah - specifically, what if they overthrow the newly appointed government of Pakistan, and that nation's nuclear arsenal falls into terrorist hands?
In Jurassic Park, the mathematician explains chaos theory to the female lead with two droplet of water that he lets fall onto the arched back of his hand. The first rolls down his fingers; the second slides backward, towards his wrist.
"But they started in the same place!" she exclaims.
"Exactly." Michael Chrichton writes some nice, glib dialogue, but this is reality. If the war in Iraq runs one way, the world will be a better place; if it runs the other, we're screwed. It is a gamble not lightly made.