There is an emerging consensus about the invasion of Iraq. Virtually all commentators agree that U.S. troops -- better trained, better motivated and better equipped than their enemies -- will be successful in relatively short order. When it comes to the diplomatic maneuvering that put them on the road to Baghdad, however, there is well-nigh universal condemnation, even from many who support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Critics accuse President Bush of being maladroit in not assembling a bigger coalition. They think he has alienated traditional allies, and torn asunder multilateral organizations such as NATO and the United Nations. They charge him with making America more unpopular in the world and thereby endangering U.S. security in the long run. Summing up the views of many, the New York Times editorializes: "This war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure, Washington's worst in at least a generation."
Things may look very different in a few months' time. If the invasion and occupation goes well, supporters of military action will be vindicated and critics will be chastened. Stalwart allies, such as Britain's Tony Blair and Australia's John Howard, will be strengthened; intermittent allies, such as France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, will be weakened. Of course, if something goes terribly wrong, the reverse will happen. But even at this early date, there is not much evidence to support the pessimistic assertion that Bush has irreparably damaged U.S. relationships with other countries and multilateral institutions. For the most part, he has exposed weaknesses and resentments that already existed. The current contretemps thereby helps clarify the future of diplomacy in a unipolar world.
Bush has gotten the most flak for, in essence, placing too much stock in the U.N., not too little. Like his father, he thought it could become an effective collective-security organization once it was freed of Cold War constraints. This approach worked in the first Persian Gulf War, because his father was confronting a clear-cut case of aggression -- Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But not even Bush père could have gotten U.N. approval for regime change in Baghdad.
That's why he didn't try. His son did -- and nearly succeeded. His mistake was becoming a little too ambitious. Not satisfied with U.N. Resolution 1441, which passed unanimously in November, Bush unsuccessfully sought a second resolution (or, more accurately, an 18th). Now, like every U.S. president since 1945, he has embarked on military action without explicit U.N. authorization.
Bush failed not because he is an out-of-control cowboy, but simply because the end of the Cold War has not meant the end of international rivalries. Other states with U.N. veto power -- notably France, Russia and China -- remain suspicious of U.S. actions and reluctant to endorse them publicly. It's unlikely that even a Metternich could have brought them around; President Clinton, for one, did not seek U.N. approval for military strikes in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan or Sudan.
Despite this latest episode of ineffectuality, any talk of the U.N.'s imminent demise is overblown. It will continue doing as much useful work (or as little) as before. Its main utility is as a social welfare organization and a debating society. A global policeman it's not, and never will be.
This crisis does not sound taps for the Atlantic alliance any more than it does for the U.N. Again, the disagreement over Iraq has merely exposed the ailments; it did not cause them. The fundamental problem is that Germany and France think they don't need U.S. protection anymore; they want to throw their weight around in the European Union, not subordinate themselves to U.S. leadership in NATO. Even if the United States cannot count on NATO to protect its vital interests, it can look with reasonable assurance to the 18 European states that have supported Bush's handling of Iraq. This crisis has revealed Paris's isolation, not Washington's, which may be why the French are hinting they may send troops after all if Hussein unleashes chemical or biological weapons.
Perhaps the greatest failure in the run-up to the war has been the administration's mishandling of a longtime ally, Turkey. But, to partially offset this blunder, there is the little-noted success in mobilizing support from much of the Arab world, including wavering states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The very thing that has alienated so much of Europe -- Bush's steely resolve -- has been important in bringing the Arabs on board. After a decade of dithering, they wanted assurance this U.S. president was serious about finishing Saddam Hussein this time.
Critics will argue that support from governments is irrelevant when Bush has antagonized their citizens. It's true that popular sentiment is running against the war, even in pro-American Eastern Europe. But public opinion is fickle, and already there is evidence that it is shifting: A new poll last week in the Guardian, of all places, found that 53 percent of British voters are confident Bush will make "the right decisions on Iraq."
That said, Uncle Sam is not suddenly going to become as popular as Ronald McDonald. Being No. 1 causes a certain amount of resentment, as baseball's New York Yankees can testify. And no nation has ever enjoyed as much power as the United States has today.
Some suggest that, in order to avoid resentment, the United States should subordinate itself to international institutions. This is sometimes a wise policy, especially in the trade arena, where the World Trade Organization serves our economic interests. It may even be possible to construct alliances that better serve our security interests than NATO or the U.N. do; various ideas, including a coalition of democracies, sound promising. But it would be irresponsible to close our eyes to a clear and present danger such as Saddam Hussein simply because we could not achieve international unity. Critics seem to assume that somehow Bush could have brought down Hussein with universal approbation. Not likely.
It's true that acting "unilaterally" -- actually with a substantial "coalition of the willing," in Bush's words -- increases distrust of U.S. power. But it's far from clear what the consequences are. Will France and Germany stop fighting al Qaeda? Refuse to continue helping to rebuild Afghanistan? Torpedo the free-trade treaties they have supported? All possible, but all unlikely, because they didn't undertake these actions as a favor to Washington -- it's in their self-interest to promote trade, stamp out terrorism and foster peaceful development in war-torn lands.
Political scientists warn of "bandwagoning" against a hegemon, and they might see some evidence of this in the U.N. debate, where France, Russia and China ganged up on the United States. But only one of these nations -- China -- is making an effort to challenge U.S. power, and then only in one region. France and Russia, along with the rest of Europe, are doing little or nothing to build up their military capabilities. If they were serious about taking on America, they would be forming a military alliance against us. No one imagines this will happen.
Why not? Because for all their griping about the "hyperpower," our fair-weather friends realize that America is not Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. We don't seek to subjugate other states. We're using our power to promote a liberal international system that benefits all democracies. As a result, there are sharp limits to how far allies will go in confronting us. A case in point: The South Koreans were up in arms about the U.S. troop presence there, but as soon as the Bush administration started muttering about withdrawal, they begged us not to go.
Whether these oppponents admit it or not (and some actually might, once U.S. troops uncover evidence of Hussein's atrocities), Operation Iraqi Freedom is another example of how the American Empire protects even those who resent it. Iraq, after all, is a lot closer to Europe than to America.
We should get used to the contempt of those we defend. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in a poem long ago, "makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep/Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap."
Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" (Basic Books).