WASHINGTON - As the war of words escalates over continued weapons inspections in Iraq, a frustrated Bush administration is inflicting heavy damage on its own international image with ugly rhetoric that complements the bullying bearing of the man in the White House.
As his conspicuous impatience with inspections mounts, President Bush accuses the United Nations of a lack of courage that threatens to reduce the world body to irrelevance. In doing so, he is demeaning its nearly 58 years of steadily growing if sometimes halting progress as a global peacekeeper.
Mr. Bush warned last week that the United Nations could "fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society" if it didn't yield soon to his insistence on invading Iraq. In a backhanded slap, he added he was "optimistic that free nations will show backbone and courage in the face of true threats to peace and freedom."
Secretary of State Colin Powell has made the same charge of irrelevancy in more diplomatic terms, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice bluntly raised the specter of Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.
"Any time you have a situation in which you are calling for more time rather than calling for Iraq to immediately comply" with U.N. disarmament resolutions, she said, "it plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein. ... We need to remind everybody that tyrants don't respond to any kind of appeasement. ... Tyrants respond to toughness. And that was true in the 1930s and 1940s [sic] when we failed to respond to tyranny, and it is true today."
No doubt the pointed recalcitrance of Security Council members France, Germany, Russia and China, and the vocal opposition or silence of other nations to accept the American position, have frayed tempers on both sides. But in light of last weekend's huge anti-war demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere, that resistance to a U.S. steamroller amounts to more than diplomatic pique.
Nor do the voices of jingoism help, as in angry reminders to the French that Americans saved their bacon in two world wars. They prompted the French ambassador here, Jean-David Levitte, to counter that France came to the aid of the colonies in the American Revolution. Enough with such sophomoric exchanges.
What's needed is an understanding by the Bush administration that in proclaiming its right as the world's superpower to adopt a policy of unilateral pre-emption - and not just involving Iraq - it is challenging the premise of collective security on which the U.N. charter was written in San Francisco in 1945.
For all of Mr. Powell's eloquence before the Security Council, many U.N. members remain unconvinced that the case has been made that Iraq is an imminent threat that warrants war now.
The U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, asked in Kuwait by The Washington Post whether he believed Saddam Hussein would order a chemical attack against invading U.S. troops, is quoted as replying: "If he does, it will settle this issue about whether he has them or not." That, to be sure, would be one drastic way to find out other than continuing inspections.
As for the argument that Mr. Bush must strike soon because U.S. forces can't be kept standing by in the desert into the sweltering summer, here's what Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., deputy for operations to the U.S. ground forces commander, told the Post: "I personally see no problem at all staying here for six months, and I think many, many more months than that. ... Come summer or not, this force can stay here training and remain ready." Don Rumsfeld, are you listening?
That leaves the collateral argument that Mr. Bush has committed himself too deeply, in forces on the ground as well as in his "the-game-is-over" rhetoric, to not go forward with the invasion now. But "saving face" is not a rationale that appeals to other countries whose courage and backbone have been challenged with charges of "appeasement" and warnings of "irrelevance" if they don't knuckle under.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.