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To an Uncertain Destination

March 18, 2003

President Bush dropped all pretense of diplomacy Monday and ordered Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave the country within 48 hours or endure war "at a time of our choosing."

War is coming. Bush attempted to put the imminent conflict in the noblest of terms: In a free Iraq, he said, there will be "no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near."

It was the most evocative part of the speech, and the one that most closely describes the key reason the administration pushed for this war of choice: It wants Hussein out of power. So does just about everyone; he's been a global menace and murderer for more than a dozen years. But Bush wants Hussein out now. Diplomacy proved too frustrating and moved too slowly for an urgency still undefined. So the United States is moving in with the few allies who are willing to share in the gamble that this impatient war to disarm and remove Hussein and occupy and rebuild Iraq really will make this nation and the world safer.

We fear that the world instead will become more dangerous. But short of the miracle of Hussein placing himself in exile, Americans can only hope that the president and his advisors are right.

The short, steely speech, with its clear allusions to Nazis and the Holocaust, might have been more widely welcomed had the Bush administration done a better job of building an international coalition. In his speech to the United Nations in September, Bush rightly challenged the U.N. Security Council to match actions to its decade of demands that Baghdad destroy its stores of chemical and biological weapons. But the administration's later message creep -- that Washington leads and everyone else should fall in line -- made matters worse.

Across the table, France was obstructionist and unwilling to say what, if anything, would persuade it to back military action against Iraq. The bitter debate turned much of the world against the United States when the focus should have been kept on Hussein. France's threat to veto anything that could have resulted in war meant that the United States, which already had suffered numerous self-inflicted diplomatic wounds, was unable to persuade others on the 15-nation Security Council to back another resolution for military action. Bush said he believed in "the mission" of the United Nations but that the Security Council "has not lived up to its responsibilities." It has not.

Whether it makes sense for the United States to then act on behalf of the world is no longer debatable, Bush suggested Monday.

So the United States apparently will go to war with few allies and in the face of great international opposition. This is an uncharted path for the United States, to an uncertain destination. We desperately hope to be wrong in our trepidation about the consequences here and abroad.

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