Last Thursday night, in his first prime-time news conference since October 2001, President George W. Bush made clear to America and the world that he's had his fill of diplomacy with regard to the Iraq crisis and that his administration is ready to strike militarily against Saddam Hussein, with or without U.N. approval. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed similar sentiments when he spoke before the U.N. Security Council on Friday. Both stressed that the time for patience was over, clearly suggesting that the weapons-inspection process had failed. Both Bush and Powell implied, in fact, that U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix was incompetent or a liar or both.
Given the administration's failure this week to round up the pro-war Security Council votes it needs for a U.N.-sanctioned war, this "damn the torpedoes" approach is showing signs of having backfired badly. The vast majority of the world's non-American population -- many of whom are favorably disposed to this country -- is convinced that the inspectors are performing to the very best of their abilities and that there is no need for war at this time. Undermining that U.N. inspection team's competence and credibility is foolish. If the inspectors haven't given up hope yet for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, men and women everywhere are asking, Why should the United States?
Meanwhile, our government's incessant saber-rattling casts a pall upon our nation's future. We are now perceived nearly everywhere as arrogant bullies: in Europe, China, South America, yes, even in Turkey, where a $30 billion bribe proved insufficient to buy off the government of a democracy whose people clearly want nothing to do with Our War. The Bush administration may yet get its war victory and even achieve a measure of postwar reconstruction success. But at what cost? Is implementing regime change in Iraq really worth the price of being despised around the world, of being perceived as an imperial tyrant in the Middle East? Is this any kind of step toward victory in the "war" against terrorism?
Apparently, since there seems little indication that the Bush administration will do the right thing, we must now hope somehow that Saddam Hussein does. Imagine how sweet it would be if the Iraqi monster decides to call it a day, delivering to his people a 2003 version of the famous "It's a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done" speech from A Tale of Two Cities, before hightailing it out of Baghdad.
Such an endgame could get us as a planet out of trouble and into an everybody-wins scenario:
· Saddam wins by staying alive and leaving as part of his legacy an abdication that saves thousands of Iraqi lives.
· Bush wins because his tough-Texas-gunman approach is seen as having produced, in the end, regime change, the desired result all along.
· French foreign minister Dominique de Villepan and company win by getting credit for having held back the Bush bullies long enough to let nature take its course.
· British prime minister Tony Blair wins because his insistence on working within the U.N. framework proved critical in keeping his American allies from launching a unilateral war as early as last fall.
· Most of all, the U.N. itself wins because it ends up looking like inspections did indeed do the trick without any of the major powers casting gut-wrenching vetoes.
· More importantly, the United Nations as an institution lives to fight another day, as we earthlings take a critical early step along a fits-and-starts path toward international government, a path we will almost certainly need to follow if we are to survive as a race into the next century.