WE MAY SOON LEARN, the hard way, the limits of American power - not from our enemies but from our friends.
After Colin Powell's United Nations address, several former skeptics pronounced themselves convinced. But convinced of what? The issue has never been whether Saddam Hussein is an appalling dictator and a conniver. The issue is how best to deal with him.
That we have good reasons to go to war with Iraq doesn't make war the most sensible policy. Since the 1940s we have pursued containment policies short of war against a long list of horrible dictators - not because Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton were soft on tyrants but because war always involves a calculation of benefits and costs. The CIA is still debating whether Iraq has links to Al Qaeda and whether it is pursuing nuclear weapons. But we know for a fact that Syria, Libya, and Iran sponsor terrorism, that North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons, that Pakistan has them. But we haven't gone to war against any of these, because the costs would have exceeded the gains.
Stalin and his heirs were far bigger menaces than Saddam. But six presidents opted for containment rather than World War III. We might have chosen to ''take out'' Fidel Castro, too. When the Soviets put offensive missiles into Cuba, in 1962, we had ample justification. But the risks of war with the Soviet Union and of rekindling anti-Yanqui resentment throughout the hemisphere outweighed the gains.
In deciding whether to strike Iraq, the issue is not whether we have grounds for war (we do) or whether we are likely to win (we are). The issue is: at what cost?
War has not even begun, and the costs are mounting. Consider this tally of collateral damage.
President Bush has managed to produce the most serious rift in NATO since its founding. He has stirred up the most serious bout of anti-American feeling since the Vietnam era, much of it coming from friends. The United States was pretty popular in the 1990s. We were the world's only remaining superpower, yet most of the world trusted the United States to use our awesome power prudently. Now a coalition is resisting US leadership, not out of envy but out of plain anxiety that Bush is making disastrous miscalculations.
This stance in turn has led the pro-administration press to demonize the French and the Germans, which only ups the ante. Even the centrist Washington Post recently editorialized, preposterously, that France and Germany were ''standing with Saddam.'' No, they are standing against the swagger of the Bush administration and a needless, counterproductive war.
Since Nixon's opening to China, six US presidents have walked a delicate line, coaxing China to liberalize, inviting it into the community of trading nations, keeping a wary eye on China's military capacity, balancing the interests of Taiwan. Since Reagan, four administrations have worked to form an alliance with the new Russia, to diminish Russia's nuclear arsenal and help it become a normal nation.
But Bush's Iraq policy has accomplished the unthinkable - it has produced a French-German-Russian-Chinese axis that has little in common except a growing fear that the United States is being led by a lunatic fringe.
Other collateral damage includes disdain for the UN. Bush and his aides, in bullying other nations to fall in line, invoke the League of Nations, which failed because it was too weak and divided. But it is Bush who might destroy the UN.
Ironically, the threat of nuclear proliferation, typified by Iraq, requires nothing so much as international cooperation among the great powers and strong international institutions. These, too, will be casualties of an Iraq war.
To hear the administration's tortured logic on its Korea policy is to appreciate just how the Iraq obsession has warped White House thinking. North Korea admits it is pursuing nuclear weapons and is explicitly threatening its neighbors who are close US allies. Iraq is far weaker. Yet Bush insists that Iraq is a menace that requires preemptive war while Korea is not.
Finally, a war is diverting attention and resources from homeland security while increasing the risks of more terrorist attacks. Somehow the administration's color codes and counsel to stock bottled water and duct tape are not comforting.
So, yes, Saddam Hussein is a menace. But the policy of containment and inspections - which Bush would abandon for war - is keeping Saddam bottled up. Meanwhile, our allies are getting more serious about the project of containing George W. Bush.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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