PARIS -- THE IMPENDING IRAQ war has become a watershed event. It will permanently alter the American relationship to the Islamic Middle East. It has already provoked serious change in Europe's relations with Washington. It may have lasting influence on what becomes of American society. US troops already operate inside Iraq, and President Bush and his people insist nothing short of Saddam Hussein's abdication will stop them.
Nonetheless, the Turkish parliament's failure to permit an attack on Iraq via Turkey came as a staggering and unexpected blow to Washington.
Even if the Turkish parliament, under intensified pressure, were to reverse its decision, an old and important American alliance has broken.
The scale of international demonstrations against the war have shocked the White House.
Congressional sources say that Secretary of State Colin Powell has told the president that if the US returns to the Security Council next week for a new resolution authorizing war, it faces humiliating defeat -- by ''old Europe.''
No one will have to veto the Anglo-American-Spanish resolution. It simply will fall short, possibly badly short, of the nine votes needed to pass.
Some in the White House are said to argue that last weekend's capture of a senior Al Qaeda figure could be spun so as to shift attention away from Iraq and back to terrorism, while UN inspections were allowed to continue. This could save Tony Blair, reported on Thursday to want more time for the inspectors. It could mean wider support when and if the war does come.
But such a backdown before the French, Germans, and Russians, after Washington's six-month buildup to war, and after all that the president has said, would itself alter the perceived international balance.
President Bush, in any case, seems much too committed for anything now to stop him. Anyway, he doesn't have to go to the UN. He claims the right to go to war without further Security Council action -- even if that would mean too bad for Tony Blair and the president's other foreign allies.
His neo-conservative desk strategists assure him that the geopolitical consequences of victory in the Middle East and the effect on American relations with Muslims will be positive. It will promote democracy as the way to go, while providing an intimidating display of US power.
Pessimists, such as myself, say the consequences will be bad for the Middle East, for US interests, and, in the long term bad, for Israel.
On past odds, pessimism is where the smart money should go.
Certainly, the trans-Atlantic relationship will not be the same after this. If the administration's Iraq gamble succeeds, Washington intends to divide Europe and build a new alliance with Central and Eastern Europe as the base for US power-projection in the Middle East and Central Asia.
If the gamble fails, there probably will be a general American fallback toward an embittered version of the anti-internationalist and America-first policies with which George Bush began his term two years ago.
A policy metaphor recently popular in Washington has been that of European Lilliputians unsuccessfully trying to tie down an American Gulliver. The effort supposedly is led by politicians, unwilling to share the burden of global responsibility, ungrateful, longing for lost national glories etc.
The recent Washington-inspired campaign against the motivations, persons and moral character of individual German, French, and even Belgian leaders has been the most vicious in postwar traans-Atlantic relations.
The whole affair nonetheless has served to clarify a number of things.
One is that the Bush administration has, without understanding what it was doing, created a situation in which the majority of nations see the UN as the only institution that has the possibility of checking American power and limiting the consequences of American unilateralism.
In the future, shifting coalitions of the willing are likely to work through the UN and other major international institutions and use the unprecedented means the Internet provides for mass mobilization to counterbalance or contain the United States on many economic and politico-military issues.
It may also be that the America will no longer be entirely free to set the international agenda. Rogue states, war against terrorism, anti-proliferation, trade globalization and other American causes may not automatically dominate international political and media attention.
Washington only now is discovering that its efforts to override or divide opposition to what it wants on Iraq have created a coherent international opposition that before was not there. It has diminished rather than affirmed its old international leadership.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.