CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Last September, I grieved. In April, I visited lower Manhattan, where floodlights boosted towers of light that magically seemed to touch the skies.
What a year this has been By for America and for the rest of the world. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Americans had to learn, or relearn, some basic lessons about the nature of the world, lessons about human vulnerability and interdependence, and about the importance of our values to who we are.
During the somber days and weeks that followed last year's horrifying attacks, most Americans in New York City, in Washington, in Pennsylvania, and in communities throughout the land seemed to connect almost instinctively with those truths. People looked after each other. Messages of condolence and support streamed in from around the world, and Americans took heart from those acts of friendship. President Bush showed inspired leadership by stressing that the terrorists had attacked the fabric of civilized life, and by pulling together a truly global coalition to confront them.
Now, too many of those lessons seem in danger of being lost. A few weeks ago Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld started arguing that the United States has the right to initiate a war against Iraq and to do so alone, if need be.
These arguments met with a tsunami of opposition from allies, and considerable criticism at home. So the administration backtracked. President Bush agreed to consult with Congress before launching a new war against Iraq, and to seek a resolution from the UN that could act as an ultimatum against President Saddam Hussein.
With the big speeches Bush has made this week, he has taken some small steps toward this broader approach. But he and his Cabinet members still claim they don't need any formal declaration of war from Congress before they launch operations against Iraq. And they warn, too, that they would not feel constrained from starting this war by anything that the UN might achieve in the meantime, including resuming weapons inspections in Iraq.
This president's unilateralism is very different from the approach pursued by the first President Bush 12 years ago, in the buildup to Operation Desert Storm. After Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first President Bush went almost immediately to the UN Security Council, winning a resolution that confirmed that Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait were illegal and should be reversed. After several mediation attempts failed, the president won a further UN resolution warning Hussein to leave Iraq by Jan. 15 or else.
In early January 1991, many in Congress remained wary of war. But three days before the UN deadline, Congress passed a resolution authorizing use of the military "to drive Iraqi forces out of occupied Kuwait to gain compliance with the UN resolutions." Bush and his advisers had leveraged the global legitimacy their plans had won into the domestic mandate they rightly felt they needed before launching Desert Storm.
The current President Bush seems to have turned away from such diplomatic-political subtlety, and from the focus on global coalition-maintenance that marked his father's statesmanship. Why? Did he not appreciate the value of the broad global coalition that backed his military campaign against the Taliban? Why does he seem so close to following the reckless, unilateralist policies that Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld apparently favor?
Meanwhile, another kind of American unilateralism is already threatening to undermine the fragile political gains in Afghanistan. This is the unilateralism of the tight purse and the blinkered vision. The Afghan allies that Washington had won to its cause last fall were attracted, in the main, by the promise of a new era of security and development in their long-troubled land. Believing in that vision, they agreed to act forcefully against the Taliban, and to help uproot Al Qaeda from their land. American officials made visionary promises that this time round they would not turn their backs on Afghanistan after victory.
The US would not have had to underwrite the rebuilding of Afghanistan on its own. It had a broad coalition ready to help. But this vital reconstruction effort required American leadership just as much as the military effort did.
So far, Washington's commitment to spearheading the real social and political rehabilitation of Afghanistan has fallen far short. Afghans still face a chronic lack of public security. Now the administration wants to shift attention and massive spending to preparations for a foolhardy new venture in Iraq.
It is not too late to reverse course. Many international statesmen stand ready to help explore the kinds of initiatives that can ease worries about Hussein's weapons programs, and deescalate tensions. There are measures short of war that can and must be tried with Iraq, as with North Korea.
Nor is it too late to do better by Afghanistan, either. What it takes in both cases is a reconnection with the deep lesson of last Sept. 11: American interdependency with the rest of the world.
Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.