President's impatience, imprudence may prove very costly


WASHINGTON - Now that our own Gary Cooper has declared High Noon and given Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of Dodge, it's being said that diplomacy has failed.

Closer to the truth is that it was ambushed before it ran its course.

Although the Iraqi dictator was destroying missiles deemed in violation of U.N. strictures and slowly yielding to other demands of the U.N. inspectors, the pace was intolerable to an impatient President Bush, who continued to talk of an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction not yet found.

So he pulled the trigger on further diplomacy rather than agreeing to a few more weeks of inspections that may not have yielded anything. But the additional time may well have won over more of the recalcitrant U.N. members to a broader "coalition of the willing" to support Mr. Bush's war.

Doing so would have made it more difficult for France to exercise its threatened veto of a second U.N. resolution backing the use of force.

Just as important, it could have given greater legitimacy to the invasion of Iraq and prospects for broader international assistance in rebuilding that country after the war.

Once the invasion starts, all Americans will hope for a swift and successful outcome with a minimum of American, British and Iraqi casualties. Afterward, a major task will be not simply putting Iraq back together but a restoration of another major casualty - America's reputation as a proponent of the rule of law imposed through the international community.

For all of Mr. Bush's rationalizations for undertaking a preventive war, and his pointed insults to resisting U.N. members who fear and oppose the new Bush doctrine, the bedrock of international relations since the end of World War II has been collective action to meet aggression.

His decision to cut short the U.N. quest for disarmament through inspections, on grounds of an imminent threat that mainly he and Tony Blair seem to see, will bring military victory at a high cost in international solidarity and commitment down the road.

More than a decade ago, the president's father patiently achieved a remarkable coalition of U.N. members behind a legitimate undertaking to roll back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Those partners bore an estimated 80 percent of the material costs of the successful effort.

This time, Uncle Sam, after offering billions of dollars in thinly veiled bribes in an unsuccessful effort to coax more U.N. support, faces bearing nearly all the costs of the war as well as the financial burden of the war's aftermath. Nations essentially accused of cowardice by Mr. Bush aren't likely to rush to help out once the dust of war settles.

In Mr. Bush's end to further diplomacy, many critical congressional Democrats are now being heard, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who last fall signed on to the Bush war resolution and urged fellow Democrats to do the same. Now he says he is "saddened that the president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are now forced into war." It's a bit late for such sentiments from him.

Criticism of Mr. Bush's abandonment of diplomacy goes beyond Iraq to fears that his administration's policy of pre-emptive war, as spelled out in its national security strategy paper of last fall, is setting the United States on a course that will further harpoon international collective action against threats to peace.

Its application against what we expect to be a paper tiger Iraq is one thing. Attempting it against nuclear-armed North Korea would be quite another. That's one obvious reason the Bush administration, for now at least, downplays the growing crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The focus now, rightly, will be on disarming Iraq. But there's a danger afterward that Mr. Bush's diplomatic defeat will further convince him that the United Nations is irrelevant in the era of terrorist threats and that a superpower has the right and obligation to combat them alone as the world's self-styled protector.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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