A little more than a year ago, America was basking in international solidarity generated by the crime of Sept. 11, 2001, and in worldwide admiration for its spectacularly effective military termination of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. A year later, there is perhaps just one country in the world whose public opinion unambiguously supports the prospective U.S. war against Iraq.
The cross-Atlantic vitriol is unprecedented in its ugliness, with NATO's unity in real jeopardy. At the same time, Americans, despite officially claimed progress in the campaign against terrorism, are taking urgent self-protective measures against potential acts of terror -- hardly a strategic success. What went wrong, and what can still be done about it? Why is the obvious fact that Iraq is not complying with U.N. resolutions producing so much controversy?
There are a number reasons why there is such disarray even among close allies, why there is such worldwide public opposition to the war (even in the "new Europe," not to mention Britain), and why there is so much uncertainty at home.
The first goes back to the way the Iraq issue surfaced in the course of the inconclusive campaign against terrorism. The emphasis placed since the summer of 2002 on "regime change" and the early indications that the United States was eager to go to war on its own have generated suspicion that the subsequent U.S. decision to seek U.N. approval for coercive disarmament of Iraq was essentially a charade, premised on the expectation that Saddam Hussein would prove unambiguously recalcitrant. U.S. credibility has not been helped by the penchant for citing suspicions as proof of Iraqi transgressions.
In addition, the manner in which the United States defined its "war on terrorism" has struck many abroad as excessively theological ("evildoers who hate freedom") and unrelated to any political context. The evident reluctance to see a connection between Middle Eastern terrorists and the political problems of the Middle East fueled suspicions that the United States was exploiting the campaign against terrorism largely for political and regional ends. Moreover, the increasingly shrill but unsubstantiated efforts to connect Iraq with al Qaeda have also given rise to the question of whether that alleged (or emerging) linkage is the reason for U.S. policy or, increasingly, the result of it.
Matters have not been helped by the evident, if unstated, endorsement by President Bush of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's notions of how to deal with both the Palestinians and the region as a whole. The European press has commented more widely than the U.S. press on the striking similarity between current U.S. policies in the Middle East and the recommendations prepared in 1996 by several American admirers of Israel's Likud Party for the then-prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
That these admirers are now occupying positions of influence in the administration is seen as the reason the United States is so eager to wage war against Iraq, so willing to accept the scuttling of the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and so abrupt in rejecting European urgings for joint U.S.-European initiatives to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The manner in which the United States has reacted to European reservations regarding Iraq has created the impression that some U.S. leaders confuse NATO with the Warsaw Pact. Even worse, the glee in Washington over European division regarding the U.S. position has nurtured the European penchant for conspiracy theories. Not only is the United States suspected of welcoming European disunity; some Europeans are beginning to believe that the United States, largely under the influence of those policymakers most eager for war, is actually planning a grand strategic realignment. The Atlantic alliance would be replaced by a coalition of non-European states, such as Russia, India and Israel, each with special hostility toward various parts of the Muslim world.
Finally, there is justifiable concern that the preoccupation with Iraq -- which does not pose an imminent threat to global security -- obscures the need to deal with the more serious and genuinely imminent threat posed by North Korea. Disunity in the United Nations and rifts in the alliance over the continuing U.N. inspections in Iraq do not create reassuring precedents for coping with North Korea's open defiance. An America that decides to act essentially on its own regarding Iraq could, in the meantime, also find itself quite alone in having to cope with the costs and burdens of the war's aftermath, not to mention widespread and rising hostility abroad.
None of the above is an argument for letting Iraq off the hook. Indeed, force may have to be used to enforce the goal of disarmament. But how and when that force is applied should be part of a larger strategy, sensitive to the risk that the termination of Saddam Hussein's regime may be purchased at too high a cost to America's global leadership. Several basic conclusions thus follow:
* The United States should not engage in tit-for-tat polemics directed at its most important allies. That is as demeaning as it is destructive. There is an urgent need for a reaffirmation at the highest level of the priority of the Atlantic alliance as the anchor point of America's engagement in world.
* The United States should acknowledge that the quest for peace in the Middle East requires both the disarmament of Iraq and the active renewal of the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
* The United States and the other veto-wielding powers in the U.N. Security Council should impose on Iraq a bill of particulars, defined as specifically and realistically as possible, perhaps also with staged deadlines (i.e., ultimatums), so that at each major stage it would be easier to reach consensus regarding Security Council certification of Iraqi compliance or defiance.
* The United States should be willing to give the U.N. inspections and verification process in Iraq the several months needed to establish more clearly whether Iraq is grudgingly complying or deliberately evading. The argument that U.S. troop deployments necessitate a war soon is simply not credible: War-ready U.S. troops, in the hundreds of thousands, were deployed in Europe for several decades; and U.S. ability for rapid deployment is today greater than ever.
* Progressive compliance would require that the United States accept disarmament as the outcome; defiance at any stage would mean a U.N.-sponsored war, with regime change in its wake.
The writer was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.