AUSTIN, Texas -- BEFORE WE ALL work ourselves into such righteous snits we can't even talk to one another anymore, let's see what we can agree on. Wanting to get rid of Saddam Hussein does not make anyone a bloodthirsty monster or a tool the oil companies. Being worried to death about the consequences of invading Iraq does not make anyone unpatriotic or in favor of Saddam Hussein.
Whether 'tis better to kill the snake or leave the snake alone, that is one question. But the question we're stuck on now is whether there's a better choice. Some of us think containment can work, and the reason we think so is because it already has. More Iraqi weapons were destroyed by United Nations inspectors in the '90s than were destroyed by the Gulf War. Why not see if it will work this time? What about a UN resolution saying, ''Any place Saddam Hussein doesn't let the inspectors go into gets bombed immediately''?
The president did an unfortunate disservice to the cause of reasonable debate Tuesday when he said of the worldwide demonstration against the impending war: ''Some in the world don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace. I respectfully disagree.'' Painting the antiwar movement as pro-Hussein gets us nowhere.
What the Europeans are trying to say is not that they think Saddam Hussein is harmless - we've got near-universal agreement that the man is a miserable SOB, including, as near as one can tell, from most Iraqis. The difference is over how to handle him, and the United States has put itself in the unfortunate position of looking as though we'd rather go to war, unprovoked, than work at a way to defang Hussein peacefully. It is this bellicosity that is so unbecoming to us and so troubling to many of our allies. Why this disdainful dismissal of a peaceful alternative?
It seems to me quite reasonable that friends might differ over whether Hussein is better handled by invasion or by containment. Why this should lead directly to our throwing around names likes ''Euroweenies'' and ''EUnuchs'' is beyond me.
Timothy Garton Ash, a British writer, put his finger on an important aspect of American anti-Europeanism: ''The most outspoken American Euro-bashers are neoconservatives using the same sort of combative rhetoric they have habitually deployed against American liberals,'' he wrote. Precisely.
Richard Perle, chair of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board, goes around Europe behaving as though he thought he were on ''Crossfire,'' and Donald Rumsfeld is just as bad. ''Crossfire'' combatants are not noted for their diplomacy. Using the language of right-wing radio talk show hosts, complete with macho posturing, is reassuring to no one.
Bush once described something as ''the language of diplomatic nuanced circles.'' One could wish he were rather more practiced in it. It is not reassuring to be told we are going to war because he ''has already seen this movie'' and is bored by it. Far be it from me to discourage blunt speaking, but issues of war and peace are not aided by displays of petty impatience. There is something deeply unserious about it.
It is this cavalier streak in our foreign policy, the contemptuous dismissal of peaceful alternatives, that makes some Europeans conclude this administration is dangerous. What your mama told you about flies and honey is still true. Why not try persuasion instead of bullying? For that matter, why not see if the inspections work before racing into this ''preventive war''?
The diplomatic situation continues to deteriorate. Not to use the language of ''diplomatic nuanced circles,'' Turkey is now holding us up for a bigger bribe. The Bush administration has made a complete hash of North Korean policy. On Feb. 5, the deputy director of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, Ri Pyong gap, told the Guardian: ''The US says that after Iraq, we are next. But we have our own countermeasures. Preemptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the US.'' Great, just what we worried about when Bush first announced this preemptive war doctrine - it's catching.
In Africa, they think the United States is trying to sabotage the UN because it is now headed by Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian. Even Nelson Mandela said, ''Both Bush as well as Tony Blair are trying to undermine an idea'' - the United Nations - ''that was supported by their predecessors. Is this because the secretary general is now a black man? They never did that when secretary generals were white.''
Look, the rest of the world is deeply worried about the possibility that this war could set off a holocaust. That is not a concern that should be treated with contemptuous dismissal.