In the aftermath of World War II, Americans looked across the world and saw a bitter irony. After we fought a necessary -- indeed, unavoidable -- war to crush the evil and expansionist regimes in Tokyo and Berlin, a new evil and expansionist regime began filling the vacuum created by their destruction.
The Soviet octopus spread its tentacles, and its grip was not broken for four decades.
A similar -- perhaps even bitterer -- irony now threatens to unfold in the Middle East.
Based on erroneous intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida, the United States invaded Iraq to disarm and depose an evil and brutal, if secular, dictator. Our military scored a quick victory over Saddam. We then began a grand experiment in democracy-building in Baghdad, the first movement in President Bush's messianic strategy for "ending tyranny in our world."
What is the status of this experiment? In an op-ed in The Washington Post this week, Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed to what he called a "much broader Middle East realignment that began with our invasion of Iraq and that may not end for years."
It is not the pro-freedom movement President Bush sought. "At the center of the realignment is Iran," said Lugar, "which is perceived to have emerged from our Iraq intervention as the big winner."
What is Iran's strategy in Iraq? "The Iranian government sees an unprecedented opportunity to bring Iraq into its sphere of influence and prevent it from re-emerging as a threat to Iranian interests," the Defense Department said in its November report, "Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq."
"Iran seeks to ensure that the Coalition bears political, economic and human casualty costs to deter future U.S. regional intervention. To achieve these objectives, Iran continues to pursue a dual-track strategy of supporting Shia unity and a stable government in Iraq -- either a functioning, unified Shia-dominated government or a federated one -- on one hand, while facilitating militia activities in Iraq on the other."
Iran, in fact, is allied with Iraqi Shiites who are part of the Iraqi government.
The Iranian-backed militias in Iran are affiliated with components of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Islamist-dominated Shiite coalition to which Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki's Call to Islam Party belongs. This coalition was put together by Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is Iranian by birth.
One of the Iranian-backed militias is the Badr Brigade. It is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party formed in exile in Iran in 1982 at the direction of Ayatollah Khomeini. Abdul Aziz al Hakim, original leader of the Badr Brigade, now leads SCIRI itself, which is the largest single party in Iraq's parliament.
The other major Iranian-backed militia is warlord Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army. Maliki became prime minister last year when Sadr threw his support behind Maliki's Call to Islam over Hakim's SCIRI in an intramural political battle within the United Iraqi Alliance.
In December, the first step in the Bush administration's plan for dealing with the Mahdi Army was to help Maliki build a new parliamentary base by bringing Hakim into his fold, making Sadr's support unnecessary. Hakim visited the White House to discuss it, then on Dec. 10 gave an interview to Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
Blitzer read Hakim a statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "Israel must be wiped off the map of the world, and God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionists."
"Do you agree with him or disagree with him?" asked Blitzer. Hakim dodged the question.
"Do you believe that there was a Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed?" asked Blitzer.
Hakim dodged again. "I am currently thinking about the Iraqi issues," he said.
Eleven days later, U.S. forces raided Hakim's Baghdad compound and arrested two Iranians, whom U.S. officials later identified to The Washington Post as commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Brigade, which has armed and trained the Lebanese terrorist group-political party Hezbollah.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV, chief spokesman for the U.S. command in Iraq, told The New York Times the raid "gathered specific intelligence from highly credible sources that linked individuals and locations with criminal activities against Iraqi civilians, security forces and coalition force personnel."
This week, the Times reported that the two Iranians captured at Hakim's compound were specifically discovered in the house of Hadi al-Ameri, who is both the current leader of the Badr Brigade and chairman of the security committee of the Iraqi parliament.
The captured Iranians were returned to their country on the insistence of the Iraqi government.
A U.S. strategic victory in Iraq now depends on finding a way to check the power of the very people we put in power.