''IF WE HAVE to go to war,'' said India's top military leader last week, ''jolly good.'' And then he added, as if mournfully, ''If we don't, we will still manage.''
Once, Americans could hear such belligerent talk and view two nations like India and Pakistan on the bloody cusp of major war, with a certain superior, if alarmed, detachment. But no more. US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will be traveling to the region this week to press the increasingly hawkish leaders of both New Delhi and Islamabad to trust in diplomacy and mutual compromise as a way of resolving their differences, even over Kashmir. America wants Pakistan to rein the extremist elements that have launched terrorist attacks against India, and America wants India to give Pakistan more leeway to do just that.
Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, showed signs of cooperating this past weekend, but India responded that it wants deeds, not words. Thus Powell faces a major obstacle as he tries to defuse the most dangerous confrontation since the end of the Cold War. Powell's problem? The harsh and reckless new rules India is playing by, alas, were written in Washington.
In fact, the threat-heavy script being read by India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee eerily echoes the script from which George W. Bush has been reading for months. Vajpayee is telling Musharraf that he regards unchecked terrorist operations conducted from Pakistan against India as justification for a full-scale Indian attack - on Pakistan.
Musharraf has been presented with a version of Bush's ''us-or-them'' ultimatum, but now Musharraf, having announced his intention to crack down on anti-Indian extremists in Pakistan, says there are limits to how far he can go in meeting such demands. For example, he seems to have rejected in principle the Indian demand to hand over culprits responsible for the Dec. 13 suicide attack on India's Parliament, effectively asserting Pakistan's sovereign right to pursue justice on its own terms. Now the world waits to see, in effect, if New Delhi's next step will duplicate Washington's.
In this column, I have repeatedly invited readers to contemplate the shape of a world in which America's hyper-martial response to terrorism became the new template for the exercise of power. It is no longer a hypothetical prospect. Even before we have accomplished the single most important war aim - ''decapitating Al Qaeda'' - our war has transformed the meaning of conflict elsewhere and has forced other nations, in imitating us, to previously unimagined levels of bellicosity.
And not only on the subcontinent. The American mode of ''dead-or-alive,'' robustly adopted since October by Israel's Ariel Sharon, has already led to a disastrous breakdown in the Middle East and promises nothing but further catastrophe. Palestinian terrorists feel licensed to escalate anticivilian outrages, and certainly will. And when Washington then urges restraint on Israel, why should Israelis not laugh bitterly?
Because a unilateral war formed the core of America's response to Sept. 11, the single greatest moral shift to have occurred among nations in the 20th century has been undercut - the fragile, but precious idea of institutionalized international mutuality. Nations owe each other minimal levels of cooperation, respect, and even deference.
Admittedly, this idea was already battered, especially by America's post-Cold War contempt for the United Nations. But with the American declaration that it will pursue terrorists in any way it pleases, accountable to no one, no matter the consequences to others, the dream of the world as a community of peoples, each worthy of respect, is dead. Now the world is the scene onto which one nation presumes to project its power, leaving to others only the decision whether to bow before it or risk being bombed.
And here's the joke: This crude strategy of swaggering power does not work. It does not lead to the accomplishment of minimal American purposes. This inconvenient fact is becoming embarrassingly evident as the war in Afghanistan winds down. A collection of desperadoes has been brought to the US detention center in Cuba, but there is no reason to believe that the Al Qaeda elite are among them. And if Osama bin Laden has, in fact, escaped, despite the bombing and its perhaps thousands of dead Afghan civilians, will we still be satisfied that this was the proper way to respond to Sept. 11?
And if India and Pakistan now go to war? Will America even then find it possible to entertain a second thought about the momentum we set going? Or are such reconsiderations unworthy of the wild west Texas our nation has become?
Drunken cowboys - and you can be drunk on power - don't give a damn for consequences. Or, as India's top military man put it the other day, ''When two wild bulls decide to fight in a jungle, they carry on regardless.''
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company