FRANCE AND GERMANY have finally responded to Iraq's flagrant violation of United Nations disarmament orders by mounting an offensive. Yet the target of their campaign is not Saddam Hussein but the United States -- and the proximate casualties look to be not the power structures of a rogue dictator but the international institutions that have anchored European and global security. Yesterday in Brussels, the two European governments, seconded by tiny Belgium, blocked the NATO alliance from making preparations to defend Turkey in the event of a war, even though the planning was supported by the alliance's 16 other members. The two governments, meanwhile, sought support from Russia for a proposal to substitute an increase in U.N. inspectors, possibly accompanied by peacekeeping forces, for the "serious consequences" the Security Council threatened if Iraq did not voluntarily dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. Berlin and Paris say their purpose is to offer a peaceful way out of the Iraq crisis. But their exclusion of the Bush administration from their planning suggests that the real aim is to obstruct council endorsement of the military intervention that the United States is preparing.

One result will be the enfeebling of both NATO and the United Nations -- the very disaster that Germany and France once feared the United States would cause. Only six months ago it was Germany and France that appealed to the United States to take the case of Iraqi disarmament to the United Nations; a year ago they reproached Washington for not involving NATO more in the war against terrorism. The Bush administration responded by making a powerful and detailed case against Iraq before NATO and the Security Council, and challenging both to act. With France's support, the Security Council crafted Resolution 1441, which gave Iraq "a final opportunity" to peacefully disarm while making clear that anything short of "full cooperation" at "any time" would forfeit the chance. Having passed such a resolution, the Security Council risks a crippling forfeit of its credibility if it backs down now -- yet that is exactly what France and Germany propose.

Their idea of reinforcing the inspectors makes little sense even to Hans Blix, the chief of the inspection team. "The principal problem," Mr. Blix said yesterday, "is not the number of inspectors but rather the active cooperation of the Iraqi side." Saddam Hussein is trying to create the illusion of that cooperation through incremental procedural concessions, such as the reported acceptance yesterday of surveillance flights. But there remains no substance: Mr. Blix reported receiving no "new evidence that I can see" on his latest visit to Baghdad. That is the product of the French-German posturing: Saddam Hussein, perceiving the rift in NATO, now calibrates his actions to perpetuate it, while still avoiding disarmament. Yesterday he made the connection explicit, saying that those who want aerial surveillance for inspections "should tell America and Britain not to open fire at us." Added his longtime henchman, Tariq Aziz: "Mr. Bush . . . should give weapons inspectors enough time to continue their work."

That their slogans are being mimicked by Baghdad's thugs ought to trouble French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. And perhaps they would be uneasy if their priorities were to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, restore the credibility of NATO and the Security Council, and steer the Bush administration into a multilateral approach to global security. More and more, however, the two leaders behave as if they share the same overriding goal as the Iraqi dictator: thwarting U.S. action even when it is supported by most other NATO and European nations. They have next to no chance of succeeding, but they could poison international relations for years to come.