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Bush's decision fraught with risks to alliances, world institutions

WASHINGTON—President Bush has ignored global public opinion, steamrolled America's allies and shaken the United Nations to its pillars as he prepares the nation and the world for a massive pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.

Bush had harsh words Monday night for the U.N., and he made it plain that he did not believe the United States needs further U.N. authority to attack Iraq.

"This is not a questions of authority," the president said. "It is a question of will.

"The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours," he added.

Bush's is an epic and unprecedented decision that could transform the Middle East or result in a disaster that could come from a dozen different directions.

"The administration is throwing an immense, high-risk bet on this," said Bruce M. Russett, the head of Yale University's program for United Nations Studies. "If it doesn't work out the rest of the world is not going to forgive us lightly."

At risk is not just the future of the Middle East, but the structure of alliances and conventions for international behavior that the United States helped design and defend since the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II.

The unpleasant side effects and unintended consequences of Bush's policy are huge already. Anti-U.S. sentiment is soaring throughout Europe, as the United States squandered the moral authority and sympathy it gained as a result of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks. The United Nations teeters amid the administration's insistence that it has the right—even the duty—to act on its own.

Fear of the United States also is rising, and ripples of instability have spread, most prominently in North Korea. The isolated communist government is scrambling to build a nuclear arsenal, some experts say, because it fears that it may be the next member of the "axis of evil" targeted for attack. Iran, sharing that fear, is pursuing its own nuclear program.

Although Bush is sometimes accused of lacking what his father once dismissed as "the vision thing," his administration's vision is breathtaking.

Led by a handful of neo-conservatives in the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the administration envisions a post-Saddam Middle East where democracy takes root, terrorism and Islamic radicalism shrivel and Israel and the Palestinians make peace.

The Bush administration's aims may be laudable and its cause in Iraq may be just. The opposition of France and an overwhelming majority of the international community, along with a minority of Americans, may be wrongheaded. Yet what disturbs allies and many Americans is Bush's belief that the United States is free to act as Saddam Hussein's judge, jury and executioner.

The debate over Iraq has opened deep fissures in the U.N. Security Council, exposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an ineffectual bureaucracy and divided Europe between "old" and "new."

"We are witnessing the dismantling of everything that the wise men of the 1940s built," said Francois Heisbourg, a French defense analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, referring to the balance of power and the web of alliances that emerged after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 fundamentally altered the U.S. view of the world. Republican hawks seized on counter-terrorism as an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, and they distilled their views six months ago in a 35-page White House National Security Strategy calling for U.S. pre-emptive military action to fight terrorists and rogue regimes.

Advocates said the new strategy reflects the surging dangers in the modern world. Critics charged that it reflects U.S. contempt for global opinion, and that it may cost the United States dearly over time.

"It says to the world that we have a right, because of our might, to decide questions of war and peace without agreement from others. This is terrifying to other countries," said Dan Hamilton, the director of the Center for Trans-Atlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.

The architects of the U.S. strategy dismiss such criticism, saying the French merely want to blunt U.S. power. They add that international cooperation is oversold, tyrannical leaders and terrorist groups must receive a devastating U.S. response and that the United States is a democratic and just actor in world affairs.

"To back down now, they'd be dancing in the terrorist camps. Their whole posture is based on the idea that the United States is weak," said Richard Perle, a prominent hawk and the chairman of the Defense Advisory Board, a Pentagon advisory group.

While like-minded neo-conservatives argue that the United States is assuming its rightful place as the world's leader, some fellow Republicans and many Democrats voice dismay at the damage to U.S. relations with allies. The United States may find international cooperation drying up in such fields as counter-terrorism, rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq and confronting North Korea.

"The difficulties may not come up in the short term because we are so powerful," said Lawrence J. Korb, a Reagan-era assistant secretary of defense. "But as powerful as we are, we can't solve all these problems ourselves."

Korb added: "Our allies have arrested more than 3,000 alleged terrorists. How long will that go on?"

Washington's rush to invade Iraq already has cost the West its unity, Heisbourg said.

"This is an inordinately high price to pay just because the Americans are on a timetable to go after Saddam," he said, and the consequences are "that you have no friends and allies."

Some experts say the Bush administration's strategy won't lead to such great global shifts.

"I don't agree with those who argue that the whole world is going to be reshaped," said former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, one of the House's experts on world affairs before his 1999 retirement. "There are severe strains with France and Germany and other allies. But the shared values of the West are going to prevail."

But the administration's tendency to act unilaterally has collided with an increasingly assertive Western Europe, no longer dependent on the United States for protection against the Soviet bloc and now a power center in its own right.

Walter Russell Mead, one of the nation's leading analysts of U.S. foreign policy, believes France is less focused on Iraq than on the U.S. challenge to Europe's role. "The French are much more worried that a pro-American bloc in Europe—including the Italians and the Spaniards—will, in a sense, hijack the EU (European Union)," he says.

In the end, much is riding on how the U.S. drive to topple Saddam and rebuild Iraq unfolds, said Jeffrey Gedmin, the director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, a think tank that focuses on trans-Atlantic issues, adding that the Bush administration must avoid prolonged conflict.

"Bush has to bet on three weeks then a rapid lying down of all these tensions. It could happen. But their margin for error is very narrow," Gedmin said.

With only slight room for misfortune, much rides on the "ifs" of the military campaign.

"If something goes wrong in this war, if a bomb goes astray and kills a large number of civilians, if it becomes difficult to find Saddam and the war is protracted, then we have no insulation against criticism," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.

Without another U.N. resolution against Iraq, European nations are not likely to want to help American taxpayers shoulder the immense cost of rebuilding Iraq, some experts said.

"It means reconstruction is unlikely to be done as a trans-Atlantic project, which means the chance of failing is much higher than it needs to be," said Steven Everts, director of the Centre for European Reform's trans-Atlantic project.

Like many other scholars, Everts believes the U.S.-European rift underscores broader issues, such as the future of the Middle East, the international balance of power and the fate of international organizations such as the United Nations.

"We are talking about something much more important than Iraq," Everts said. "It is a test of world views."

"It may go down in history as one of the great blunders, perhaps like the Athenian expedition against Syracuse, which so weakened Athens in its war against Sparta," said Russett, the Yale scholar. Weakened by the debacle, Athens found its days as a military power numbered.

"It will decide in the eyes of millions of people around the world what kind of nation this is," said Dan Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.