WASHINGTON -- President Bush is radically revolutionizing American foreign policy in a way that has changed our image -- the object of envy around the world -- and has transformed our close relations with other nations.
The president asserts that the United States has the right to preemptively attack any nation it deems a potential threat. The problem for Bush and our nation is that the United Nations authorizes such retaliatory acts only in self-defense.
The test case obviously is Iraq where the United States is embarking on an unprovoked war. In our own history, such a move would have been labeled an aggression. I'm thinking of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
No one doubts that Bush can change the Iraqi regime and oust Saddam Hussein in short order. But the repercussions will be felt for decades and could justify other so-called "preventive wars" by other nations.
Do we really want that? This is a perilous precedent for our country to set.
The new Bush policy also breaks with our proven post-World War II policy of collective security. With the help of friends and allies, we were able to keep the peace during the Cold War with a containment policy toward the now-defunct Soviet Union. Likewise, Iraq has been contained since the first Gulf War 12 years ago.
In my continuing search for the logic of the new Bush policy, I went back recently to the president's speech on June 1, 2002, at West Point. Historians years from now will dredge up that text as they, too, seek the roots of Bush's war on Iraq.
In his address, the president declared: "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge."
His tough address stressed that "the only path to safety is action."
Delivered just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with a shattered America seeking revenge, that bombshell speech was not widely recognized at the time as a major turning point in American foreign policy -- nor were its pros and cons properly debated in the Senate afterward.
The nation was still in shock and ready to embrace any new measure that was billed as a step toward enhancing our security.
It paved the way for Bush and his hawkish advisers to put Iraq high on their target list.
When I measure his Iraq policy against the standards of his West Point speech, I am still puzzled about the administration's insistence that Iraq poses an imminent and direct threat to the United States. That, after all, should be the fundamental test of soundness for any decision to attack.
He has very few believers among fellow members of the U.N. Security Council or the world at large. The "coalition of the willing," as the White House calls it, consists of 30 nations that have publicly sided with the Bush administration. Only three of those have offered combat units: The United States, Britain and Australia.
There are another 15 nations that have offered their anonymous support to the U.S.-led war, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. One wonders why these nations don't want to be identified publicly.
This adds up to a small percentage of the 191 nations that belong to the United Nations.
Contrast this with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, where the U.S.-led coalition -- animated by the clear and moral goal of repelling Iraqi aggression against Kuwait -- consisted of 31 member nations contributing military support. Arab nations were publicly supportive and sent their military forces to pitch in. The world at large applauded the efforts of President George H.W. Bush.
This President Bush has apparently persuaded Americans that military action is needed. Polls earlier this week showed him with a 71 percent approval rating.
After the war there will be rewards in victory. Bush will have achieved a new imperial foothold in the Middle East, not to mention control of the second largest oil reserves in the world.
He also will have rid Iraq of a dictator and made its neighbors feel more secure. In addition, he will have reaffirmed his own apparent philosophy that might is right.
On the debit side, he may have made the United Nations irrelevant. He may have junked the benevolent image of America and substituted a portrait of an arrogant world power, seeking global domination.
Sorry, Mr. President, I don't believe your go-it-alone foreign policy will make us more secure. For perhaps unintended consequences, it portends a more dangerous world for everyone.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Copyright 2003 Hearst Newspapers