The window of legitimacy -- that interval during which the United States could mass its forces around Iraq and prepare for war, ostensibly in the name of the United Nations -- is now officially closed. In November we obtained, at a price, a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution demanding Iraqi disarmament. Now Germany, France, Russia and China have declared themselves opposed to war so long as Hans Blix can run around Iraq merely "containing" Saddam Hussein.
The lull is over. Germany, which has declared its opposition to war, assumes the presidency of the Security Council next month. France has threatened to veto any resolution authorizing the use of force. The Security Council break with the United States is now open. Colin Powell, architect of the administration's U.N. strategy, is described as "caught off guard" by this utterly predictable turn of events. The president now faces his moment of truth.
The one advantage of Resolution 1441 was that it gave us a window of legitimacy during which to mobilize, position equipment, launch carriers, line up bases -- in short, create the infrastructure for disarming Hussein. However, now that the "world community" has shown that it never seriously intended to disarm Iraq, we are back on our own. This is the moment. There is no turning back.
The president cannot logically turn back. He says repeatedly, and rightly, that inspectors can only verify a voluntary disarmament. They are utterly powerless to force disarmament on a regime that lies, cheats and hides. And having said, again correctly, that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Hussein is an intolerable threat to the security of the United States, there is no logical way to rationalize walking away from Iraq -- even if the president wanted to.
Nor can the president turn back politically. He began the march on Iraq with his State of the Union address a year ago. He identified the axis of evil as the single greatest threat to America and the world. To now admit that he can and will do nothing to meet that very threat would not just leave him without a foreign policy, it would destroy his credibility as a leader.
Most important, there is no turning back geopolitically. After the liberation of Afghanistan, the United States made disarming Iraq the paramount American security objective in the post-9/11 world. To now pass off Iraq to hapless Hans for "containment" 1990s-style would shatter the credibility of post-9/11 American resolve that was achieved by the demonstration of American power and will in Afghanistan.
Credibility matters deeply in a world of enemies -- and of fence-sitters who must decide which side to choose. Particularly after the collapse of our position on North Korea, which can only be explained away as a temporary necessity while we gird ourselves for Iraq, the entire Bush Doctrine, which sees the conjunction of rogue states, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction as the great existential challenge of our age, would collapse. You cannot march up this hill and then march back down empty-handed without undermining American deterrence everywhere.
Because there is no turning back, and because the president is in any event committed to act, it is critical to act quickly. Delay will cost us every day. Part of the reason is military. You cannot forever keep troops on alert, carriers on station, regional allies committed.
Part is geopolitical. Our distraction and delay on Iraq have emboldened enemies elsewhere. The North Koreans have grown so brazen during this year of American hesitation that they have kicked out weapons inspectors, withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, threatened to resume missile testing and reopened their plutonium reprocessing plant at Yongbyon.
And there is a price to be paid at home. The country is in malaise, a combination of economic slowdown and psychic apprehension, a state of phony-war suspension as we await the inevitable conflict.
The window of legitimacy having closed, delay has no upside. There will be no talking our way out of the opposition of France, Germany and the others. The only tonic for that opposition will be an American victory that changes the landscape of the region.
France will be speaking very differently of the United States when a decent, democratizing, pro-American government in liberated Baghdad begins its rule -- and opens bids for oil contracts. Our cynical sometime-friends will astonish us with their, um, flexibility as they accommodate themselves to the reality of a Middle East without Saddam Hussein, without his weapons of mass destruction and with its first chance since decolonization for a real birth of freedom.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company