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Ruminations on America at the brink of war

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The United Nations and even its predecessor, the League of Nations, were largely American inventions. The American moment at the end of World War II - when greatness led the most powerful country in the world to help rebuild other countries' economies rather than dominate by continuous war - gave birth to the concept and the charter of the United Nations.

The drive to unity is an ancient instinct of humanity. But political unity of sovereigns, always the driving geo-political force - and this was the argument for a United Nations - is best achieved by reason, rather than conquest. Empires and political powers of every type, from the Roman to the Iroquois, from the Spanish to the Soviet to the American, all have sought to unify, by reason or by force, their known world.

When President George W. Bush signaled to the world some months ago that he was ready to make war on his own, and his main defense advisors seemed to dismiss the idea that the United Nations and thus the other legitimate governments of the world had any stake in the matter, too many substantial people and sectors balked at the idea. Across the board, the vast majority of international leaders, and a very respectful spectrum of his own father's most trusted advisors on foreign policy (many in opposition to the process being played out by some of the president's own), advised caution, and rigorous adherence to the fully diplomatic approach grounded at the United Nations. As a result, when the United States, led by Bush, necessarily ended up going to the United Nations, seeking (and getting) a consensus resolution from the world body to confront Saddam Hussein, something important was sustained for international law.

Indeed, for the better part of the year since his speech declaring the existence of a new "Axis of Evil," Bush beat the war drums unilaterally, coaxing acquiescence from the world. Among his top appointed people, his Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, was the consistent advisor who projected the real notion that the world is, indeed, a community of nations, which must be consulted on such a drastic proposal. Powell, the highly combat-decorated soldier, understood that many other nations have serious and consequential opinions on the subject of war and peace. The legend is that Powell suffered his litany of indignities and marginalizations for taking diplomatically constructive positions and only his enormous prestige in military and civilian circles kept him in the high-powered game.

President Bush's attitude on the war issue, whether it is Al Qaeda or Iraq, or wherever it goes next considering 9-11 is understandable. In the year since the airplane-bomb attack slapped America from abroad, the American president has come to embody the anger, the indignation, the quest for justice and retribution as well as some of the raw ambition of a sector of the American people. Bush is the skipper of the world from whom much is demanded.

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The president from Texas' perception of the world is simple but clear, and he has the support of the majority of Americans. The Washington Post reports that 59 percent of Americans directly support a ground invasion of Iraq, while 76 percent expected Iraq's Saddam Hussein would not comply with the United Nations resolution that compels comprehensive tough inspections all over his country, even under his swimming pools. Sixty-one percent do not believe in the effectiveness of such inspections. The idea of war thus enlivens most Americans while it of course terrifies others. A major war of "regime-change" against a large country is the president's apparent preferred option. He has threatened it often, perhaps so many times that flexibility may no longer be an option.

That the policy has its limitations is obvious. There is great reservation still for the real risk of such a momentous war. For all the talk of good and evil and despite the clear existence of international terrorism, too many know that international policy work requires great skill. War can be seen as perhaps the most blunt and final instrument of diplomacy, or the result of failed diplomacy. In the Gulf region, these are certainly truisms. Yet the entire world understands that nations extend themselves by diplomacy and trade, or by war. Undeniably, too, everyone knows that oil lubricates the world's industrial advance. Iraq is a potential de-stabilizer as well as a major spigot in what the Post calls "the jugular vein of the world economy." Nevertheless, it is also true that the world has grown safer by containment, rather than wars of conquest, by cautious if forceful diplomacy, rather than wars of occupation, by the potential for energy independence rather than reliance on oil.

Interestingly, and properly, it is the career soldier turned statesman who, perhaps understanding best the horrors of war seeks to explore diplomatic solutions, rather than or at least before, rushing headlong into violent conflict. Those who have known war always abhor it. Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, raised in the South Bronx, perhaps also knows how the dynamics can play when small and marginalized peoples of the world are struggling. In Iraq we have a people who are oppressed by a dictator. At the same time there exists the opportunity for some, like the apparently still alive Osama bin Laden, to exploit a worldwide Muslim population as one being abused by the United States.

We give credit here to Secretary of State Colin Powell and his exceptional staff for taking the high road at a moment when the world needed it most. He has done much to sustain the integrity of the United States in foreign affairs, while refocusing world attention on the international violations of the Iraqi dictator. Clearly, Iraq must now bow before United Nations pressure and open its weapons systems and armament programs to full inspection. Many independent observers see enough possibility in this direction for Iraq, where the regime's actual threats could be curtailed while total war is avoided. When Saddam Hussein grudgingly accepted the U.N. resolution, an effective deterrence was established for the short term. Whether Saddam has the adaptability to moderate his international relations and retool his regional message toward trade potentials that offer peace, rather than militaristic approaches remains to be seen, but is clearly unlikely without continuous international oversight. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to comb the snakes out of Saddam's hair. The possibility whether the hard-liners within the White House would allow any development in that direction also remains but is doubtful. Unavoidably, war appears the likelihood.

In any scenario, President Bush is certainly fortunate, if not adroit, to have invited a man like Colin Powell into his cabinet. Even though clearly the odds are for an all-out assault against Iraq, led by United States troops, Colin Powell has earned the respect of the advocates of reason in international relations. For better or worse, the United Nations is the only institution ever to coalesce world opinion and the only forum where reason over aggression or wars of occupation can be argued and implemented. In addition to its essential role in condemning and often halting atrocities committed by dictatorial leaders, the U.N. also serves to mitigate the unbridled intentions of the most powerful countries.

The lives of many - including American Indian soldiers and citizens - depend on the good judgement of President George W. Bush and the people around him in power in America. We hope the reasoned arguments of Secretary of State Colin Powell, that America lead for peace, continue to resonate in President Bush's inner circle. North America's national security is at stake. The safety of American people at home and particularly abroad - the very perception the world has about Americans - perhaps for decades to come, hangs in the balance.