In the structure of a classical play, a problem is presented in Act 1. Complications arise in Act 2, and all is resolved in Act 3.
In Iraq this spring, while much of Europe was still enmeshed in Act 2, George W. Bush plunged directly into Act 3, without acknowledging the complications or fully considering the consequences of his actions.
The result was the most heated year in trans-Atlantic relations since the Suez crisis of 1956. The Iraq war ignited tinder already piled high by clashes over trade, arms control, the Middle East, global warming and the International Criminal Court.
By March, when the war in Iraq began, surveys indicated that only a minority of Europeans held a favorable view of America, while in the United States pollsters found unprecedented animosity toward dissident allies France and Germany.
In October I spent three weeks in Europe, hoping to find passions cooling and anti-American sentiments receding. Instead I was told, even by normally pro-American officials, that European hostility had only grown deeper as the months passed with no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq and without any sign of recognition by Bush that there had been any merit to Europe's prewar warnings.
My European friends were not shy in telling me that Americans appeared to them simultaneously besotted with power and unnerved by terror, increasingly overbearing, jingoistic and rash.
Europeans appreciated the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks, I was told, but were baffled by the idea that an attack on Iraq should be the centerpiece of America's response. Saddam Hussein was a rotter, they conceded, but no imminent threat - and he was blameless for Sept. 11.
As to current events, despite the Bush team's attempts to show a happy face, the Iraqi rebuilding looks at best like, in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's words, "a long, hard slog."
Meanwhile the American president is unable to appear at public events, even in historically friendly Great Britain, for fear of being shouted down by protesters, and an October Gallup poll suggested that a majority of Europeans view the United States as a threat to peace.
The antagonism that has crept into Euro-Atlantic relations must be reversed because it has the potential to undermine the entire web of institutions and arrangements created after World War II, not only to contain communism but also to build prosperity, control nuclear arms, advance democratic values and distinguish right from wrong in world affairs. If the Bush administration isn't careful, it will allow Hussein to do what four decades of Soviet leaders could not do: drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.
One would hope, therefore, that the administration would devote itself to mending the trans-Atlantic bridge. Little would disarm the president's domestic critics more than the spectacle of America and Europe once again working together smoothly, combining their diverse talents to combat terror, democratize Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan, denuclearize Iran and promote the rule of law.
After America's recent show of its aggressive and unilateralist capacities, a tilt back toward institution-building and alliance-strengthening would be welcomed in Europe and would likely attract bipartisan support at home. It would also be eminently sensible, given the challenges of the moment.
Going the other way
Alas, with elections looming, the administration seems to be adopting the opposite approach. The first Republican television ads forcefully - and unfairly - accuse Democrats of "attacking the president for attacking terrorists" and of planning to "put our national security in the hands of others," presumably meaning the United Nations or even France. The Republican National Committee is urging voters to call their congressmen "to support the president's policy of pre-emptive self-defense."
Meanwhile, despite almost daily setbacks in Iraq, the Pentagon shows no sign of a serious effort to internationalize the occupation. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the administration seems to have concluded that unilateralism in foreign policy is not a weakness but a strength, at least where electoral politics is concerned.
If this is in fact Bush's view, the 2004 election will constitute a virtual referendum on whether Americans have any desire to continue the trans-Atlantic partnership.
The Republican strategy could play well among those persuaded by the administration's implicit claims that the invasion of Iraq was essentially a retaliatory measure for Sept. 11 and that attacking Saddam Hussein was simply another way of attacking Osama bin Laden.
Although unsupported by the facts - Bush himself has acknowledged that there is no evidence linking Iraq to Sept. 11 - this argument casts the war not as a subject for pragmatic discussion but rather as a moral test. The Germans and French failed this test, those advocates say, essentially deserting under fire.
The spectacle of the lone sheriff facing down the bad guys while the cowardly townspeople tremble in the background, crystalized in the classic film High Noon (1952), has deep resonance for the American electorate. Casting Bush as the rugged individualist taking on terrorists might well appeal to voters more than any Democratic insistence that the terrorist threat can be confronted and turned back only with the aid of old alliances and established institutions.
If the Republicans pursue an ideological campaign and win, the world will change in highly combustible ways.
It is one thing for an American administration to depart from traditional policies under stress and for a limited time, but it would be quite another for a president to win election with a mandate to make that departure permanent.
How would Europe react? Even Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain probably would find it necessary, for his own political survival, to distance himself from American policies. The current disturbing trends in European public opinion about the United States would worsen, I fear, and without the lubricant of a security partnership economic disputes would be even harder to resolve. The European Union would become more resistant to American influence, and NATO and the United Nations would be hobbled.
None of this is inevitable. The Democratic presidential candidates are divided on Iraq, but they're generally united in challenging the Bush administration's unilateralism, its emphasis on pre-emption and its penchant for ignoring international institutions.
Some of the candidates also argue that the Iraq invasion has diverted resources from the battle against al-Qaida, alienated world opinion and created a new rallying point for terrorists.
The eventual Democratic nominee can be expected to attack Bush for squandering international support after Sept. 11, for failing to develop a long-term strategy to defeat terrorism and for exposing American troops to unnecessary danger through incoherent planning in Iraq. These arguments might well make sense to an American public increasingly troubled by developments abroad.
If his opponent begins to find traction with such charges, even after the capture of Saddam Hussein on Dec. 14, it is possible that Bush will have no choice but to switch gears once again, running for re-election as a born-again internationalist who treasures NATO and reads the United Nations Charter every night before bed. We might even see him resuscitate his 2000 campaign slogan, "I am a uniter, not a divider."
At the moment, however, it appears that in 2004 American voters will be offered a clear choice: reaffirm their country's strategic alliance with Europe or replace it with a strategy dependent, in the end, on American strength alone.
If so, their choice will be historic and will go a long way toward determining, once the curtain falls, whether or not Bush's Act 3 ends up as a tragedy.
Madeleine K. Albright was secretary of state in the Clinton administration. She is the author of the best-selling "Madam Secretary: A Memoir" (Miramax Books, 2003).