Birth of a nation on its own

March 23, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON — Lord knows there's got to be a better way. - Edwin Starr, from the song "War"

WASHINGTON - For the first time in its history, the United States has claimed for itself - and puts into action - a doctrine of pre-emption, the right to hit first any nation we suspect of hostile intent.

In an era when nuclear, chemical and biological weapons might easily fall into the hands of stateless religious fanatics eager for martyrdom, the president says anything less would be suicide.

It's a compelling argument, yes. But it has frightening implications, for it frees any nation to strike any other on the grounds that it perceives a threat. Indeed, it can be argued that the new doctrine gives thug nations an incentive to strike American interests first - to pre-empt our pre-emption, in other words.

But the new nation being born here is not just a product of the Bush Doctrine. It's also the product of Washington's recent taste for unilateral action. As the old order passes, it evidently takes with it any inclination on America's part to embrace a role of constructive leadership as part of the community of nations.

Truth is, we have been rejecting that role since well before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

What else did it mean when we abandoned the peace process in the Middle East? When we repudiated the Kyoto Protocol and withdrew from treaties to which we had already agreed? When we stopped listening to the rest of the planet, even our allies? When we, simply put, withdrew from the world?

And given all that, who can be surprised at what happened when we went to the United Nations seeking its imprimatur for a war with Iraq? The world withdrew from us.

As a result, we stand on the edge of a change that feels fundamental, profound and permanent. We are a giant that is no longer inclined to watch its step. Less involved with or concerned by the world around us. We are becoming a go-it-alone nation, a don't-give-a-damn-what-anybody-else-says nation. And ultimately, because of that, a frightening nation.

The country for which the world wept on 9/11 is now the country much of the world fears. For many people, the most dangerous man on the planet is not Saddam Hussein, but President Bush.

Naturally, we will support him. In time of war, there is nothing more American than to rally around the commander. So even principled dissent falls silent now, lest it be mistaken for lack of patriotism. Ask the Dixie Chicks.

And yes, life goes on. Indeed, life looks pretty much as it always has. The Sopranos will soon be back in production because HBO and actor James Gandolfini have ended their feud. Elizabeth Smart's alleged kidnappers have just been charged with multiple felonies. The Oscars will be handed out today. Baseball returns soon.

We ration no nylon, save no rubber, are asked to make no sacrifices. The war is something terrible far away.

But beneath the veneer of normalcy we watch and wait and pray that Washington knows what it is doing. We need for George Bush to be right and those of us who are doubtful to be wrong. We need this for the sake of more than 200,000 American servicemen and women who stand ready for war in deserts far from home. And for the sake of a nation that stands more isolated than it has in generations.

Time will tell. In the meantime, bombs fall. Missiles fly. And in the thunder of their explosions, the old America passes. Those of us who loved her watch and weep from the doorstep of change.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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