WASHINGTON HAS been heading toward a unilateral American war against Iraq. Such a war would invite the most serious consequences for the United States - perhaps not immediately, on the battlefield, but surely in the years to come, in fanatical and deadly terrorist attacks against Americans and in stepped-up hostility from America's own allies.
The Bush administration, having stirred up the Iraq crisis, has seemed oblivious to this. Fantasies of "energy security" in the Middle East and fantasies that the rest of the world will respectfully submit to America's bullying have characterized the White House approach - and at the same time summoned up profound uneasiness outside U.S. borders. Indeed, countries in Europe and elsewhere have been weighing the costs of resisting American policy and coming to the conclusion that they will have to go along - but acquiescence to American designs is not in any sense to be confused with a united front.
The war that the world has been dreading would severely strain international security and cooperation, perhaps past the breaking point. It would let loose wholly unpredictable reactions. And it would be wrong.
At this late hour, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has shown that there could be a way out. In his sober and thoughtful address to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, he made the case against Saddam Hussein. He was persuasive, and not bellicose. He marshaled facts; he didn't rattle sabers. Much of what he said was not particularly new, and some of it was not altogether germane - but he brought together, for the Security Council to judge, all the ways in which Iraq has defied the council's own resolutions. He offered an indictment rather than a call to arms.
Finally, someone in the administration is taking diplomacy seriously. Mr. Powell respectfully invited his foreign colleagues to weigh the American argument, and urged them to speak with one voice. With troops massing in the Middle East and deadlines approaching, Washington, it appears, has recognized at last that it needs to win over important segments of world opinion.
And here's what could happen: With assiduous fence-mending, the United States could in fact allay the suspicions of the other members of the Security Council and produce from that a unanimous ultimatum to Iraq. Baghdad, its options for maneuver genuinely closed off, might give in. This, as we see it today, offers the only chance to avert war. Close ranks internationally, and maybe Mr. Hussein will get the message.
And if Baghdad thumbs its nose anyway? The war that would follow, with United Nations backing, would be vastly different in character from one in which the United States goes it alone. It would be Colin Powell's war, and not Donald Rumsfeld's. The political context would make a tremendous difference - and all for the better.
It would still be war, and there would still be needless death and suffering. But the aggressor would not be the United States.
What Mr. Powell needs is real solidarity from the other members, and not lip service. It's not going to be easy getting there - and he may fail. Talk to us about oil, they'll say. What will you do about Israel and the Palestinians? Are you prepared to stick it out and rebuild Iraq afterward? How can we trust that cowboy president of yours? And how again does bombing Baghdad have anything to do with Sept. 11?
In truth, Mr. Powell was speaking yesterday from a weak position.
In the eyes of others, the White House has manufactured a showdown with Iraq, after more than a decade of fitful containment, for reasons that are murky at best. Mr. Hussein poses a serious threat to the world, but few profess to understand why the United States has chosen this moment for war. And Mr. Bush and his top advisers, having shown their evident disregard for foreigners, don't make the job any easier.
Putting pressure on Mr. Hussein in the way it was done may well have been a dreadful mistake, and there is no completely satisfactory solution. Backing down invites further defiance. Turning the screws tighter makes the desperate use of chemical or biological weapons by Iraq all the more likely. But the United States and the rest of the world will just have to make the best of it.
There were two enormously encouraging developments at the Security Council yesterday. Mr. Powell, noting that the United Nations had given Iraq one last chance, declared, "Iraq, so far, is not taking that one last chance." Those two little words - "so far" - carry an enormous, hopeful, weight.
And, when it was time for the French foreign minister to speak, it was clear that he was treating Mr. Powell as respectfully as Mr. Powell had treated him. No Gallic shrugs. He talked about renewing and increasing the inspections, which, after Mr. Powell's evidence, may have started to become slightly beside the point, but he also explicitly declared that France will not rule out the use of force.
Why do we call that encouraging? Because getting the world to speak with one voice may be the only way that force can be ruled out.
We hope the man in the White House extends the same respect to Mr. Powell's arguments. The test that the United States will face in the coming weeks has nothing to do with credibility or military might. It will be about mature and effective leadership.