Richard Reeves

The Diplomatic Disaster of the Century

PARIS -- The United States is about to go to war saying that diplomacy has failed. They're right about that. Day after day, month after month, President Bush and his men have made things worse for themselves in one of the most ruinous exercises in diplomacy the country has ever seen.

Not to put too fine a point on it -- and no matter how the war against Iraq goes -- it is hard not to conclude that the president is ignorant, the secretary of defense nuts and the secretary of state incompetent.

I do not think this war is necessary, but trying to put myself in the other fellow's shoes, I have to sympathize with what must be despair and confusion in this frustrated White House. "We are in the thick of diplomacy," press secretary Ari Fleischer said last Monday. He might have been more accurate to say we are the thick of diplomacy.

The world of the only superpower is shattering around us, at least diplomatically. We have alienated and divided our own allies, from France and Turkey right up to the 51st state, Great Britain. We have divided our most creative diplomatic initiative of the last century, the United Nations. We have divided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, our inspired military response to communist expansionism, a military arm that won a war without fighting. We have, with ignorance and arrogance aforethought, brought the world (and ourselves) to crisis -- and perhaps to chaos.

Our president, confusing the United Nations with the Texas Legislature, seemed to believe that we could bully, bluff and buy the rest of the world into going along with whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted -- no matter what arguments he used and changed. Sept. 11, disarmament, regime change, a stabilized Middle East, whatever. Instead, as Bush now knows, he was getting lousy advice from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told him time was on our side. It was not.

Time and the United Nations gave the rest of the world the chance to organize against, or take revenge on, American unilateralism. The world's only superpower was checked diplomatically by a new superpower called the world, which, given time to think and talk, concluded that Iraq was not the imminent threat the Americans were saying it was, and that if these Americans so wanted to be alone, let them.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who first won plaudits as the grumpy ghost of Christmas past, turned his sarcasm from the press to our oldest and best allies -- up to and including Great Britain -- calling them all outdated, irrelevant and unnecessary.

The only world leader who must be more frustrated than Bush right now is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, loyal and principled, who could be destroyed by the blundering of his American friends. "He may be wrong in Iraq, badly wrong, but he has never been less than honest," editorialized The Guardian, the British paper that usually speaks most well of Blair's Labor Party. The paper's line now is that the prime minister was a fool to trust Bush, Rumsfeld and company. The more centrist Independent on Sunday covered the top of its front page with one long headline:

"Not in Our Name, Mr. Blair. You do not have the evidence. You do not have U.N. approval. You do not have the country's support. You do not have the legal right. You do not have the moral right. You must not drag Britain into Bush's unjust and unnecessary war."

So, after humbling weeks of ignorant assumption and unforced error, the Bush of Bush's war is in a corner of his own design. Presumably he will try to fight his way out -- and militarily he should prevail. But there is also the chance, whatever happens on desert battlefields, that this sorry chapter of diplomacy and geopolitics may do considerably more damage to the United States than to Iraq. They say that the president likes to be alone. When this is over, he may be.

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