Riding the whirlwind


YESTERDAY, FRANCE and Russia promised to block any U.N. Security Council resolution that would open the way to an attack on Iraq. The White House said it would nevertheless push ahead in hopes of securing such a resolution, or at least the backing of a majority of Security Council members, which would be a symbolic victory of sorts.

Diplomatic stalemate? Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Russian television that the United States is ready and willing to fight on its own, or with partners. There should be no mistaking what he meant.

The world is in for some furious rounds of diplomacy in the days ahead, but this is what it comes down to: A French or Russian veto of a second Security Council resolution is not going to stop a war in Iraq. A failure by the United States and Great Britain to round up a majority of the Security Council is not going to stop a war either, although it would be a serious blow to Prime Minister Tony Blair. Spain and Bulgaria could defect from the coalition of the willing, leaving the United States and United Kingdom alone, and even that wouldn't stop a war.

A diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations seems next to inevitable. A war in Iraq seems flat-out inevitable.

Soon there will be 285,000 American troops and 42,000 British troops in the countries surrounding Iraq. Six carrier battle groups are patrolling the waters nearby. (The French, apparently covering all bets, are sending a seventh.) Apache helicopters, shipped to Kuwait, haven't been taken out of their bubble-wrap cocoons yet, but it's going to happen.

The chances that all that firepower will just end up sitting around the desert for a few months and then go home again are nil.

This page has argued from the beginning that the Bush administration has been unable to articulate its reasons for going to war. The primary stated issue, of course, has been the likely existence of biological and chemical weapons and the possible existence of nuclear components. But at times the White House has tried to put forward an al-Qaida argument, and last week the talking points in Washington were all about the deliverance of the suffering Iraqi people from a tyrannical regime.

The effect of this inconsistency has been to raise doubts that any of these purported reasons is actually driving the march to war. And those doubts go a long way toward explaining why the United States has so few friends at its side as it heads into the battle for Iraq.

If war must come, there is no knowing how it will turn out. Most likely, it will not drag on. The Iraqi army is not strong and its morale is not high. There will, naturally, be casualties on both sides; the Pentagon promises to try to keep those numbers within acceptable bounds - whatever those may be.

But the more troubling part comes afterward. What will it take to hold Iraq once its own army has disintegrated? What will happen throughout the Middle East? How will Egypt, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia react? How many terrorists will be inspired to strike at targets throughout the world? How much cooperation will the United States get from countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines in pursuing terrorists? What will happen to European alliances left ragged? Who will pay for all this?

Much has been made of the intolerable risks of pulling back now from a war in Iraq. America would look weak and Saddam Hussein would be more of a menace than ever. Yet no one in Washington, it seems, has bothered to tote up the costs. That is not leadership.

The days of reckoning are fast approaching.

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