The road to Iraqi disarmament has produced the gravest crisis in the Atlantic alliance since its creation five decades ago. The central issue, bluntly stated, is as follows:

If the United States yields to the threat of a French veto, or if Iraq, encouraged by the action of our allies, evades the shrinking nonmilitary options still available, the result will be a catastrophe for the Atlantic alliance and for the international order. If the crisis ends without regime change in Baghdad, if the United States marches 200,000 troops into the region and then marches them back out without having achieved more than a nebulous containment of a regime that has violated U.N. directives for over a decade, the credibility of American power in the war on terrorism and in international affairs will be gravely, perhaps irreparably, impaired.

The governments that have supported or tolerated the U.S. buildup in the region will be jeopardized or driven to look for an exit. If Saddam Hussein's regime continues in power, based on the claim that he has complied with U.N. Resolution 1441 or that no adequate proof of violations exists, the U.N. process will have produced a debacle. Sanctions will be lifted or substantially eased, as they nearly were two years ago. Iraq will then emerge as the richest country in the region, with either caches of undeclared weapons of mass destruction or new ones built with the additional resources freed by the lifting of sanctions.

But if this is not what France and Germany seek, what is their objective? The satisfaction of an implacable public opinion that their leaders foster rather than try to shape? The thwarting of a powerful ally? A French price to Germany's current self-absorption in exchange for a greater say in European union? That this crisis has broken out at such a late stage in the political process demonstrates an amazing lack of understanding in Europe of American realities. No government exposed to President Bush or his principal advisers after the passage of U.N. Resolution 1441 last November should have doubted that within months it would face an American claim of a material breach and measures to overcome it. Why, then, vote for the first resolution only to threaten to veto its inevitable follow-on? In the end, French realism will not permit France to stand aside while its strongest ally -- which has stood by it through two world wars and the Cold War -- pursues its vital interests with a coalition of the willing.

It cannot be in France's interest to remove all terrorist inhibitions and confirm the fundamentalist view of the West's psychological collapse. Moreover, if France and Germany do not want to abandon their European vocation for the foreseeable future, the European countries that have dissociated from their position on Iraq will need to be reckoned with. Indeed, one of the casualties of the current imbroglio may well be the notion that Europe's identity can be achieved by acting as a counterweight to the United States.

But even if France acquiesces in the end -- as is probable -- a legacy of distrust will continue to weigh on Atlantic relations. The necessary reassessment of the existing poisonous atmosphere would do well to learn from history. A generation ago, comparable discord arose, even though the Soviet threat at the time set limits to the implications. The two sides of the Atlantic are repeating a play in which they were principal actors once before and in the same region: the Middle East. Only now the roles are reversed.

In the mid-1950s, Britain and France still thought of themselves as major world powers. Britain had special interests in Egypt and the Persian Gulf, France in Syria and Lebanon. Our European allies treated these interests as a flank of the Cold War. As they became increasingly conscious of the lack of resources to sustain that role, they invited America to undertake a joint effort in the Middle East, as it had with respect to Greece and Turkey when Britain was no longer able to hold that line.

But the United States declined to assume the mantle. It was not prepared to associate itself with British and French interests in the Middle East (seen as essentially colonial), much as our European critics now seek to dissociate from the United States' definition of its interests in the region. And just as our European critics today support the war against terrorism but insist on fighting it with methods essentially of conciliation, so in the 1950s the United States sought to serve its Cold War strategy by dissociating from its European allies on regional issues, expecting that post-colonial regimes would then seize the opportunity to join the struggle against Soviet imperialism. It was not to be. The post-colonial radical leaders treated U.S. overtures as helpful assists from a renegade imperialist, very rarely as acts of partnership in the Cold War. Indeed, as the role of Britain and France diminished, the United States increasingly became the target of Middle East radicalism, which viewed Moscow not as a strategic threat but as a useful lever to extract concessions. This trend became particularly pronounced after the Soviet Union jumped over the containment belt along its southern border by selling arms first to Egypt, then throughout the developing world.

The difference in perspective came to a head when, on July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France considered this a mortal threat to their lifeline to the Middle East -- and to their great-power status. They called Nasser's motives comparable to Hitler's and declared that no outcome would be acceptable that would permit a single power to "exploit [the canal] purely for purposes of national policy."

This should have signaled that Britain and France, whose leaders had experienced appeasement as the cardinal sin, were prepared to risk war. But the United States was not, and it treated the British and French warnings as bargaining maneuvers. The Eisenhower administration formally accepted the European objective of an internationally guaranteed use of the Suez Canal. But it rejected the use of force. In such circumstances, diplomats resort to stalling and seek to transform substance into procedure -- as our European critics are now doing in the U.N. Security Council. And Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was a master diplomat. On Aug. 1, 1956, he proposed a maritime conference of 24 principal seafaring nations to devise a system of free navigation through the canal. But he negated the impact of that proposal on Aug. 3 by stating: "We do not want to meet violence with violence." Nasser rejected the scheme on Sept. 10. Three days later, Dulles came up with the proposal of a Users' Association to operate the canal and collect revenue by a line of ships just outside Egyptian territorial waters at either end of the canal. Once again, Dulles undercut his own proposal by abjuring the use of force. On Oct. 12 the United Nations adopted a Six Point Plan combining the conclusions of the Maritime Conference and some elements of the Users' Association. It was vetoed by the Soviet Union.

In exasperation and frustration, Britain and France went to war. Planning incompetently, distracted by the simultaneous Soviet suppression of the revolution in Hungary and burdened by bringing in Israel as an ally, Britain and France found themselves confronting an overwhelming U.N. vote of condemnation. The U.N. charge was led by the United States, voting with the Soviet Union against its allies -- for the only time in the Cold War -- and withholding support for European currencies in financial markets.

The analogy thus far stops before a formal allied dissociation from American policy. France and Germany still have the option of permitting themselves to be persuaded by Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council or Hans Blix's final report of Feb. 14. In making that decision, America's European critics should remember that none of the hoped-for benign results of America's dissociation from its allies in 1956 were achieved. Nasser showed no gratitude for having been saved by American concern for the nonaligned. Instead he presented the outcome as a personal triumph extorted from a reluctant United States. Pro-Western regimes toppled throughout the Middle East, among them Iraq's, starting a series of ever more radical convulsions in Baghdad.

Within five years, Egyptian troops invaded Yemen. In 1967 Nasser threw off the restraints established in the aftermath of the Suez crisis along the Israeli border and in the Straits of Tiran, unleashing the Six-Day War, after which Egypt broke relations with the United States. These were not restored until Anwar Sadat drew the conclusion in 1973 that blackmailing America with Soviet arms was a dead end -- a lesson that should have been taught two decades earlier.

As for the Soviet Union, it interpreted Western divisions during the Suez crisis as an opportunity to exploit allied divisions closer to home. In 1958 Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed an ultimatum ushering in four years of crises over Berlin.

The most profound impact was on the Western alliance, though it took years to work itself out. France's decision to build a national nuclear force either resulted from, or received an enormous impetus from, the crisis in which the United States voted with the Soviet Union and Khrushchev felt free to threaten Britain and France with nuclear weapons. Even German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, as good a friend as America had in Europe, saw in the Suez crisis the possible precursor of a diplomacy in which Europe would be a bystander unless it organized itself for an independent course. On the day Britain and France accepted the American ultimatum, he said to the French foreign minister: "There remains to [France and Britain] only one way of playing a decisive role in the world. . . . We have no time to waste. Europe will be your revenge."

History, of course, never repeats itself precisely. Nasser was no Saddam Hussein; the threat of Third World radicalism backed by Soviet arms was less insidious than contemporary terrorism combined with weapons of mass destruction. But then as now, America's task was to overcome strategic dangers while fostering the aspirations for dignity, equality and progress of the peoples of the region. This goal did not require the humiliation of allies.

It may be argued that the Suez crisis shows that, over a period of time, containment proved more effective than confrontation. This is belied by the consequences described above. And there was one fundamental difference: In the 1950s, the United States had the option of replacing Britain and France in the search for stability and progress in the region; there is no comparable option for France and Germany if the current crisis ends badly. Radicalism will then reign unchecked.

The main issue then, as now, concerns the nature of alliances, especially when no Soviet threat exists to set limits to allied discord. During the Suez crisis, America put forward three principles: that allied obligations were circumscribed by a precise legal charter; that recourse to force was admissible only in strictly defined self-defense; and that the United States had an opportunity to build relations in the developing world, in effect, at the expense of its allies. These principles are now being applied with a vengeance against America by its European critics.

They were not valid when the Cold War defined certain inescapable necessities. They are dangerous today, when the international system is in revolutionary flux; schadenfreude is not a policy. Alliances do not function because heads of state consult their lawyers; they thrive precisely when they involve moral and emotional commitments beyond legal documents. And alliances whose members believe they can benefit in the long term from the failures of their allies turn into a contradiction. If the Atlantic alliance is to remain relevant to the challenges of the new period, its leaders must find a new definition for these imperatives.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm.

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