WASHINGTON - I went to President Bush's White House news conference Thursday to see how he was wrestling with the momentous issue of Iraq. One line he uttered captured all the things that were troubling me about his approach. It was when he said: "When it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's permission."
The first thing that bothered me was the phrase, "When it comes to our security." Fact: The invasion of Iraq today is not vital to American security. Saddam Hussein has neither the intention nor the capability to threaten America, and is easily deterrable if he does.
This is not a war of necessity. That was Afghanistan. Iraq is a war of choice - a legitimate choice to preserve the credibility of the United Nations, which Mr. Hussein has defied for 12 years, and to destroy his tyranny and replace it with a decent regime that could drive reform in the Arab-Muslim world.
The problem that Mr. Bush is having with the legitimate critics of this war stems from his consistent exaggeration on this point. When Mr. Bush takes a war of choice and turns it into a war of necessity, people naturally ask, "Hey, what's going on here? We're being hustled."
And that brings us to the second phrase: "We really don't need anybody's permission." Again, for a war of no choice against the 9/11 terrorists in Kabul, we didn't need anyone's permission. But for a war of choice in Iraq, we need the world's permission - because of what it would take to rebuild Iraq.
Mr. Bush talks only about why it's right to dismantle the bad Iraq, not what it will take to rebuild a decent Iraq - a distant land, the size of California, divided like Yugoslavia. I believe we can help build a decent Iraq, but not alone. If we're alone, it will turn into a U.S. occupation and make us the target for everyone's frustration. And alone, Americans will not have the patience, manpower and energy for nation-building.
Mr. Bush growls that the world is demanding that America play "Captain, May I" when it comes to Iraq - and he's not going to ask anybody's permission. But with Iraq, the relevant question is not "Captain, May I?" It's "Captain, Can I?" - can I do it right without allies? No.
So here's where we are. Regime change in Iraq is the right choice for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world. Mr. Bush is right about that. But for now, this choice may be just too hard to sell. If the president can't make his war of choice the world's war of choice right now, we need to reconsider our options and our tactics. Because if Mr. Bush acts unilaterally, I fear America will lose not only the chance of building a decent Iraq, but also its efficacy as the strategic and moral leader of the free world.
A story. In 1945, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia met President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a ship in the Suez Canal. Before agreeing to meet with Roosevelt, King Abdul Aziz, a Bedouin at heart, asked his advisers two questions about the U.S. president: "Tell me, does he believe in God, and do they [the Americans] have any colonies?" The real question the Saudi king was asking was: How do these Americans use their vast power? Like the Europeans, in pursuit of colonies, self-interest and imperium, or on behalf of higher values?
That's still the most important question for U.S. national security. The world does not want to be led by transparent cynics like the French foreign minister and his boss. But it also does not want to be led by an America whose Congress is so traumatized by 9/11 that it can't think straight and by a president ideologically committed to war in Iraq no matter the costs, the support or the prospects for a decent aftermath.
But, France aside, the world is still ready to be led by an America that's a little more humble, a little better listener and a little more ready to say to its allies: How can we work this out? How much time do we need to give you to see if inspections can work for you to endorse the use of force if they don't?
Think about FDR. He had just won World War II. America was at the apex of its power. It didn't need anyone's permission for anything. Yet, on his way home from Yalta, FDR traveled to the Mideast to meet and show respect for the leaders of Ethiopia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because he knew he needed them not to win the war, but to win the peace.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.