BECAUSE THE CIRCLE of chaos was closing in on the realm, the hero went to the troll and, forcibly subduing him, demanded to know the secret of drawing order out of chaos. The troll replied, ''Give me your left eye and I'll tell you.'' Because the hero loved his threatened people so much, he did not hesitate. He gouged out his own left eye and gave it to the troll, who then said, ''The secret of order over chaos is: Watch with both eyes.''
This story, from the late novelist John Gardner, perfectly illustrates the American problem. We are embarking on war with only one eye watching. That eye sees Iraq, Saddam Hussein, the threat of terrorism, a break with ''old Europe,'' the frightening foreground of the post 9/11 world. What we are not seeing is the larger background where far more deadly dangers lurk.
We have no eye on the very real possibility that this swaggering war, coupled with the ''us-or-them'' spirit of US foreign policy, will force Russia and China back into the armed hostility of a bygone era. A restoration of that enmity will return both powers, independently or together, to the bunker of rampant nuclear threat - the only way to check Washington's unipolar and unilateral exercise of power. Ironically, that the world survived the nuclear terror of the Cold War seems to have made the American people assume that no such threat can ever reappear, which is the only reason the far lesser dangers of Saddam and Al Qaeda can have so traumatized us.
But superpower nuclear danger is making a comeback. It is well known that the United States, Russia, and, to a lesser degree, China maintain globe-destroying nuclear arsenals. What has not been sufficiently noted is that the nuclear powers have stopped working toward the elimination of nukes and are again depending on them as guarantors of national sway. That was clear a year ago in Washington with the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, but not only there. While Leonid Brezhnev (responding to the worldwide freeze movement) declared in 1982 that Moscow would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, Vladimir Putin (responding to NATO's 1999 air war against Serbia) renounced that promise in 2000. Mikhail Gorbachev proposed in 1986 the elimination of all nuclear weapons; Putin's ''new concept of security,'' like Bush's new ''strategic doctrine,'' assumes their permanence.
And so with China. When Washington renounced the ABM Treaty last year, Beijing could reasonably assume that new US missile defense would undercut the deterrent value of China's comparatively small nuclear arsenal, forcing an escalation of offensive capacity. The militarization of China's nascent space program becomes inevitable in response to the Pentagon's resuscitated Star Wars. The arms race in orbit.
What we have here - Russia bristling at US moves into Central Asia; China ever wary of US-armed Taiwan - are the preconditions of a renewed Cold War and worse. This is the background to which our missing eye makes us blind. The war in Iraq will open into all these horrors, which can rapidly spread. Russia's quickened belligerence will unsettle Eastern Europe and Germany, which, distrusting the United States, may finally pursue nukes of its own. China's escalations will spark India's, increasing pressure on Japan, at last, to embrace nuclear weapons. Already smoldering fires in North Korea and Pakistan can easily ignite. A domino theory - the falling of nuclear abstinence before mass proliferation - will be proven true after all. The new chain reaction.
Watching with two eyes, we would see that in dealing with Saddam, no nation's convictions matter more than those of Russia and China. Why? Simply because they can, with us, set in motion forces to destroy the world. It is more crucial than ever, building on the near-miraculous peaceful outcome of the Cold War, to erect structures of trust and mutuality with these two former enemies. Yet the opposite is happening. If Washington were deliberately to set out to alienate Moscow and Beijing, its policy would look exactly like the Bush administration's.
Americans seem hardly to have noticed that both Russia and China oppose the US plan to invade Iraq - opposition that should weigh far more than that the misgivings of France or Germany. Faced with this display of what can only appear as American imperial assault, Russia and China have good reason to feel threatened. They can be expected to hasten the construction of a counterforce aimed at limiting Washington, renewing a level of catastrophic threat that will make today's ''war on terrorism'' - and even tomorrow's war on Iraq - look like the good old days. To watch the looming US aggression with both eyes is to oppose it.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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