LONDON -- From the moment when, as a British wartime evacuee, I traveled to a foster home in Minnesota, I fell in love with the United States. I recited, every day at my grade school, "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." My childhood was incandescent with the freedom, the ebullience, the endless horizons of the American heartland.
I went back, to a grimy, hungry, embattled wartime Britain in 1943, and still American generosity, warmth and vision reached out to me. The creation of the United Nations. The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Marshall Plan, these were the earliest milestones of a new world order. The United States strove mightily to bring the historically quarrelsome nations of Europe together, and many of us signed on for that crusade.
The new world order was to be a partnership. Yes, of course America would be much the stronger partner - but America was willing to listen, to share, to cooperate, to recognize that the partnership added to her strength.
Even in the 1960s, when the United States got caught up in the hopeless war in Vietnam, and in supporting sometimes brutal dictatorships in Central and South America, her commitment to democracy and justice led to the remarkable movement for civil rights, challenging at long last the embedded racism of some parts of society, not all in the traditional South.
So, during the long, bleak Cold War, there was no question whose side we were on, we British politicians dedicated to parliamentary democracy. Like our American allies, we held our breath throughout the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis; like our American friends, we rejoiced at the almost unbelievable collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the whole Soviet regime alongside it.
It was a second chance to build that elusive new world order, and we seized it. By this time, I was a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, helping to train the shock troops who would build democracies and liberal economies in the countries controlled for so long by the Soviet Union.
There were, of course, wrong turnings. One of the worst was in Bosnia. in 1993. Flak-jacketed, I flew into a Sarajevo under Serbian fire with Lynn Martin, the former U.S. secretary of labor. It didn't take long for me to realize that the Anglo-French operation there was a shell, a pretense at humanitarian aid embellishing a much harder-nosed policy of supporting Serbia. Richard Holbrooke's Dayton settlement was crude in many ways, but it brought the disastrous war to an end, and called the Anglo-French bluff. Bully for the United States.
Then there were the appalling revelations about the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebenica, meant to be a United Nations safe haven - an act of cold-blooded terrorism not incommensurate with what happened in New York five years later.
Not long after came the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Tony Blair, Britain's Prime Minister, strongly advocated a military intervention to stop this latest Yugoslav atrocity, and won the support of President Bill Clinton. That intervention ended with Slobodan Milosevic before the International Court in the Hague.
We Atlanticists, dedicated to building global respect for democracy and the rule of law, were saddened by the reluctance of Congress to take part in laying what we saw as the essential foundation stones. These were the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol to the Climate Change Convention and the network of arms control agreements ranging from the Biological Weapons convention to a revised ABM Treaty. They extended later to the proposals for dealing with heavily indebted poor countries and limiting exports of arms. None attracted the support of the Bush administration.
Then Sept. 11 happened. I was flying from Brussels to Chicago the night of Sept.10, and I remember waking up at Notre Dame University the next morning to the obscene images of wrenched metal and falling human bodies, like something out of Dante's Inferno. The American dream had been brutally ripped apart.
Many of us hoped the new Bush administration would declare this act a crime against humanity, thereby uniting the whole world not for a war between civilizations, but in a war for civilization itself. That was not to be. By declaring this act of terrorism an act of war, the president pulled it back into the traditional conflicts of nation states.
It was understandable but it set nation against nation. Colin Powell's successful coalition building, aided by Tony Blair, went some way to make terrorism a global enemy. But since then, the coalition has become less and less central to American policy making. The overwhelming military hegemony of the United States, whose defense budget now exceeds that of the next fifteen most powerful states in the world added together, is indisputable, though it cannot always prevail quickly against an enemy as elusive and as fanatical as Al Qaeda.
What it indisputably cannot do is to stabilize war-torn countries, build the bases of a civil society, and establish in a rudimentary form the rule of law. Without such institutions, terrorism will breed like microbes in the shattered and sterile soil of these casualty countries, and all the armies in the world will not be able to stop it. The attack on terrorism has to be dual -military and civil - otherwise it will prove to be an expensive disaster.
This is where the coalition including moderate Muslim countries comes in. Coalitions have to be listened to. And this is where many of us harbor grave worries about the current direction of American policy, which seems close to a decision to attack Iraq. Iraq's government is one of the nastiest on earth. Its leader is a brutal dictator. But there is no convincing evidence so far linking him with the Sept. 11 atrocity, nor any evidence that he is planning an immediate attack on his neighbors.
All the Arab governments seen by Vice President Dick Cheney warned him against such an attack. We in Europe share their misgivings. Of course all these governments may be pushed or scared into compliance. But in the streets and souks of the Middle East, the frustration of hundreds of thousands of young men who identify with the Palestinians will explode. It is terribly risky to attack Iraq while the Middle East chaos festers on. And Israel might well be the target of a Saddam Hussein with nothing to lose.
Please, America, to whom we have looked for enlightened and wise leadership now for three generations: listen to the voices all around you. Remember the just war is defensive, proportionate, and avoids civilian casualties. Today war and peace are in your hands.
Baroness Williams, a longtime member of the House of Commons and a former education minister, is now leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. She contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
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