War at the threshold

March 18, 2003

THIS WAR IS WRONG. It is wrong as a matter of principle, but, more importantly, it is wrong as a matter of practical policy.

The cost that the United States will have to pay in the months and years to come will be immense, and worldwide. America has angered friends on every continent. The resort to war is stark evidence of the failure of American diplomacy, although it is an open question whether the Bush administration was ever willing to give true diplomacy a try.

President Bush spoke eloquently last night. It was a welcome departure from his usual appearances. There was a clear implication in what he said, though: Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction is not really the central question, but more precisely a pretext for invasion.

The real issue for him is the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This may explain why Washington's efforts in the United Nations were so fruitless, because there all the debate was about inspections and weapons - evidently, beside the point.

Now, American and British soldiers and airmen are readying for battle. Barring a last-minute capitulation by the Iraqi dictator, they will soon see it. Their leaders have put them in harm's way; that deed is done, and there is now no turning back.

A swift victory would be the best possible outcome, from every perspective. It would lessen the chance for Mr. Hussein to wreak havoc; it would hasten the day when the United States could start mending its relations with other countries; it would hold down American and British casualties, and of course it would kill fewer Iraqis.

Addressing the people of Iraq, Mr. Bush said, "The day of your liberation is near." And that, if it proves to be correct, is the good that can come from this conflict.

America today is a nation where unease mixes with impatience, where doubts mingle with fears. Many individuals feel conflicted. There is an impulse to rally to the support of our fighting men and women, and it is altogether fitting - to wish them luck and success (maybe in that order), and a speedy return home.

The White House says the window for diplomatic activity has shut. That couldn't be more wrong. Even as the fighting begins, diplomatic efforts should intensify. The United States must not forget its obligation to reach out to the rest of the world - to persuade and to listen. With Iraq occupied, with other threats arising, America will, more than ever, need partners, associates, allies and friends. When this is all over, France and Russia will still be there. Even Donald Rumsfeld can't wish them away.

Rarely is war simply a test of arms. Every war has a political context, and the aftermath of every war is nothing but political. There is every reason to hope for and expect an American triumph on the field, but this administration has demonstrated an especially inept hand at international politics, and that's why the potential repercussions of this war are so disturbing.

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