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A Year Later

HAS it been a year since American streets emptied to watch the skies over Baghdad "illuminated"?

One of the oddest aspects of the Gulf War is how quickly people forgot it. It was a spectacular comet of a war.

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But many questions remain unanswered: Why didn't anyone anticipate Saddam Hussein's Kuwait invasion? What are the actual casualty figures in Iraq? How significant was, or is, Saddam's nuclear capability? Should he have been allowed to stay? Given the large number of civilian casualties after the war, could coalition bombing have been kept to frontline targets in Kuwait?

But for today, one year after the bombing began, three questions: What are the results of the war in the region? With respect to a "new world order"? In the US?

* Regionally. First, the end of Saddam's ability to develop nuclear weapons is a prime achievement of the war - an outcome sanctions couldn't have achieved.

Second, the Gulf war roughly reestablished a balance of power between Iran and Iraq and was carried out without Jordan coming apart. These are pluses; but the story isn't over.

Third, Kuwait was liberated - though the noble goal of doing so has been sullied by human rights abuses inside Kuwait and a distinct lack of anything resembling true democracy.

Fourth, and possibly most important, the Middle East peace process was initiated. Madrid in November would not have happened otherwise. Yassar Arafat's mistaken support of Saddam cleared the way for new Palestinian negotiators - individuals Israel could accept.

* New world order. The war empowered the United Nations. It also confirmed the US as the world's sole military superpower - a position it has used to put pressure on North Korea and push for a settlement in Cambodia. European glibness prior to the war was chastened by US swiftness in shackling Saddam, though Germany has reasserted itself by recognizing Croatia and seeing that EC unity at Maastricht was solid.

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* Domestic impact. George Bush put on a major war and had other nations largely pay for it. The US isn't saddled with war debt. Plus, for now, it has secured Middle East oil - something not certain with a militarized Saddam around. The US military can point to a complex job well done.

Politically, the war may have less impact than thought last spring. War exultation has been swamped by economic concerns. It's still a long way to November. Bush may have to explain why Saddam sits in Baghdad; but Democrats who opposed the war may face the perception they're weak on foreign policy.

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