DOHA, Qatar — On what looks like the eve of war in Iraq, there is evidence of a vast gap between the way the United States and the rest of the world view the crisis.
What Americans see largely as a campaign to eliminate one Middle Eastern dictator -- Saddam Hussein -- is viewed by many in Europe and especially the Arab world as nothing less than a watershed in global affairs.
They worry that America's self-declared right to launch preemptive wars, its willingness to dismiss the United Nations, to shuck allies and make plans to invade and occupy another country -- all amid talk of remaking the Mideast -- are the beginning of the end of the post-World War II order and the start of an American Imperium.
Indeed, for a growing number of observers outside the United States, the central issue in the crisis is no longer Iraq or Hussein. It is America and how to deal with its disproportionate strength as a world power.
What the Bush administration describes as a war of liberation is widely seen abroad -- even by those who condemn the Iraqi president -- as a war of occupation.
"A simple truth has been withheld from the American people," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "In the eyes of most Arabs, America lacks the legitimacy and moral authority to impose itself on Iraq."
Added Sabah Mukhtar, the Iraqi-born head of the Arab Lawyers Assn. in London: "Arabs and Muslims are just like anyone else in the world. They don't like invaders, even if they come as liberators. There's a serious belief the United States wants to redraw the map of the Middle East to favor Israel."
Even President Bush's announced decision to unveil a so-called road map for Middle East peace has been dismissed in the region as little more than a public relations trick -- a last-ditch effort to build support for war among Arabs.
"The timing will make people across the Arab world look at it as part of the preparation for war," said Hamad Kawari, Qatar's ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s and, later, to the United States. "They won't take it seriously."
Ironically, the 1991 Persian Gulf War was also seen as a watershed in world affairs -- but a very different one. As the first major conflict of the post-Cold War era, it unfolded against a backdrop of Soviet-American diplomatic cooperation, a rejuvenated U.N. and a broad, American-led coalition of nations. The era was one of high expectations, in which America, standing triumphant amid the wreckage of communism, perhaps was never more admired, never had more friends.
The spirit of that moment is frozen in a photo that hangs today in Kawari's Doha office. It shows him standing proudly with envoys from nearly 30 other nations, Arab and non-Arab, all gathered around a smiling President George H.W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden. The faces represented both the coalition of partners Bush had assembled to roll back Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the larger hope for a new age.
"In 1990, the case [against Hussein] was very clear, and President Bush succeeded to build it," Kawari said. "I think the current president didn't succeed in building a case that there is a threat. It is not a war of liberation -- it is a war for [Hussein's] head."
If Bush has indeed failed, the price of that failure is easy to see: America's actions -- and its stated intentions -- have rarely elicited such disquiet or such suspicion. In this part of the world, where so many countries joined the United States to confront Hussein 12 years ago, there is neither enthusiasm nor a perceived need to attack him again today.
Dogu Ergil, a professor of international relations at Ankara University in the Turkish capital, offered what he called the prevailing view of Hussein within the Turkish leadership, including the armed forces and the foreign policy establishment.
"Saddam's teeth and nails have been pulled out," he said. "He's not dangerous anymore except to his own people. He is a paper tiger. Iraq is not threatening anyone in the region."
Even in Muslim countries that are helping U.S. military forces, the public is ambivalent, and policymakers admit privately that they worry far more about the impact of unchecked American actions than about Hussein.
In the years since the Gulf War, admiration of the U.S. has turned to fear and resentment.
* In Doha, just a few miles from the U.S. Central Command base where Gen. Tommy Franks stands ready to run a war against Iraq, a theater audience made up mainly of Qataris breaks into applause as the leading actor reacts to television scenes of the collapsing World Trade Center towers with the words: "Americans go around punishing everyone. Now it's time to let them feel something."
A follow-up line -- "The boys who flew those planes, now they were real men" -- draws even louder applause, along with whistles of approval.