Toppling Saddam Hussein promises to do away with one of the Middle East's most aggressive regimes and to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But, in pursuing these worthy goals, the United States is putting on the line the partnerships and principles that have served as the foundation of the international system since World War II.
As the tortured diplomacy of the past weeks has made clear, Washington is prepared to break with its key allies in Europe - France, Germany and Russia - and proceed with a war that much of the world does not support. In the tense days that lie ahead, America needs to weigh carefully whether the gains that will accompany the downfall of Saddam Hussein are worth the demise of the Atlantic Alliance and America's increasing isolation in global affairs.
Since the early days of the Cold War, a coherent and cohesive West has been the anchor of international stability. But the West is now in the midst of coming apart, with America and Europe parting company on first-order principles - questions of war and peace. In the wake of the Cold War's end, some trans-Atlantic tension is unavoidable. The absence of the Soviet threat makes the need for Atlantic unity less immediate. And the European Union is coming of age and becoming more self-confident, making its members less willing to follow America's lead.
The principal source of the West's erosion, however, is America's belligerent and unilateralist behavior. From the outset of his presidency, George W. Bush has backed away from one international agreement after another - the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the International Criminal Court and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to name a few. He has asserted that America will embrace a doctrine of pre-emption and pre-eminence, relying on its military superiority to strike potential adversaries as Washington sees fit. And Bush made clear in his last State of the Union address that America is anything but a team player, insisting that "the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others."
This swagger is more than a matter of style. It arises from the conviction, widely held among Bush's advisers, that the more powerful the United States is - and the more blustery its leadership - the more the rest of the world will get in line.
But exactly the opposite is happening. Countries around the world are distancing themselves from the United States and locking arms to resist a wayward America. Most members of the European Union are doing their best to block Washington's rush to war, fully aware that doing so will invoke Washington's wrath. Even in countries such as Britain and Spain, whose governments have been siding with the Bush administration's stance on Iraq, public opinion is decidedly against war. North Korea is threatening to restart its nuclear weapons program as it seeks a deterrent against a U.S. attack. South Korea has been none too pleased with Washington's bellicose response, with Seoul taking its own approach to the crisis.
Anti-American sentiment is on the rise in just about every quarter of the globe - including in countries that have for decades been close allies. In the run-up to Germany's election last September, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party was lagging in the polls. He then played the anti- American card, denouncing Washington's intended war on Iraq - and won re-election. The new president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, similarly gained office on a platform calling for independence from Washington.
The Bush administration has thus done an impressive job of compromising America's international legitimacy and doing irreparable damage to the international order that was erected under America's watch. The impending war against Iraq may well represent the point of no return.
Despite the ongoing arm-twisting, Washington appears to be far short of the votes needed to garner the Security Council's support for war. If a second resolution authorizing war is not forthcoming, the Bush administration should reverse course and defer to the strong consensus that favors putting off military action while extending the weapons inspections. At this point in the standoff, America's long-term interests will be far better served by restoring the world's confidence in U.S. leadership than by launching an attack that will be widely perceived as unnecessary and unjust.
With President Bush beating the war drums on a daily basis and with 200,000 U.S. troops already massed in the Persian Gulf, it appears increasingly likely that Washington will within a matter of weeks go to war against Iraq - regardless of what transpires at the UN. American troops will probably find themselves in Baghdad in short order.
If these troops do not have the backing of the international community, however, the victory will be a pyrrhic one. Without the court of world opinion on its side, the United States will cease to be a model for the world, but instead be seen as a dangerous Goliath that needs to be tamed. America will find that its long reign as the respected and trusted leader of the free world will have come to an end. That is far too high a price to pay for toppling a regime that, however loathsome, can be adequately neutralized through vigilant containment.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of"The End of the American Era."