Did we win? So what?

Or to put the question more precisely: What did we win?

The time has come to make an accounting of the costs and benefits of the Iraq war.

That isn’t as easy as it might seem after the relatively quick defeat of Iraqi forces. Even the president has hesitated.

“Our victory in Iraq is certain, but it is not complete,” Bush said April 15. Final victory wouldn’t be declared until Gen. Tommy Franks had determined that all of Washington’s military objectives were met, he said.

Those objectives were entwined with grand political aims, so it’s hard to total up the balance. But I’ll give it a try.

From a military perspective, U.S. troops succeeded impressively in their main objective: Iraqi regime change. Saddam is MIA, but his monstrous regime is over, and U.S. casualties were minimal.

Despite the loss of Iraqi lives, and the chaos in their country, Iraqis will be better off no matter what follows. The question is whether Americans will be better off, too. The prospects are murky at best.

Let’s match the results so far against the Bush team’s broader objectives:

* Eliminating Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

* Curbing terrorism.

* Bringing democracy to Iraq.

* Scaring other rogue states by a demonstration of U.S. might that would also help ensure American preeminence in the world.

No biological or chemical weapons have yet been discovered, although U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously claimed Iraq had “a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent.” Whatever Saddam had may still be hidden or destroyed or spirited out of the country during the wartime chaos.

But I’ve always thought this threat of biochemical weapons was a red herring – far more dangerous to Saddam’s own people than to us.

The president and his aides hinted constantly that Saddam was linked to 9/11 and might hand such weapons off to terrorists. But they never presented any evidence of a 9/11 link or serious ties to al-Qaida.

Western intelligence agencies and Iraq experts doubted Saddam would risk retaliation by handing off such weapons to terrorists he couldn’t control. Anyway, terrorists can mix up biochemical stocks on their own from recipes on the Internet.

If Americans are safer from Saddam’s fall, it is indirectly. Unless contained indefinitely by inspections and sanctions, he would have eventually acquired a nuclear weapon and threatened his neighbors. The long-term danger was to the region, with its oil – not directly to us.

In fact, the demise of Saddam doesn’t necessarily make us safer. The battle against al-Qaida or its successors (who are based around the world) will go on. It could even escalate – depending on what happens inside Iraq.

By ousting Saddam, the United States has taken on the burden of Iraq’s future. It is clear that administration officials weren’t prepared for what they found.

Pentagon hawks, lulled by the promises of certain Iraqi exiles, were unprepared for the distrust felt by many Iraqis – especially Shiite Muslims – toward Americans.

“It is entirely possible that in Iraq you have the most pro-American population that can be found anywhere in the Arab world,” I was told by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in November.

Whoops! Just because most Iraqis hated Saddam doesn’t mean that they welcome American rule.

This puts the administration in a difficult bind. If it wants to build Iraqi democracy, U.S. forces must stay to bolster Iraqi liberals, who are weak. But if U.S. forces stay too long, they will be opposed by religious Shiites and nationalists who reject Western occupation. Suicide bombs may follow.

If America quits Iraq too soon and leaves chaos behind, the “demonstration effect” on the region will fail. Many erstwhile friends and regional players who opposed this war are already meddling inside Iraq.

But if U.S. troops stay too long, they may wind up like Israeli forces in Lebanon, under attack and finally forced to leave in a rush.

The United States has won the right to navigate these treacherous shoals. Is this “victory”? Ask me in six months.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.