WASHINGTON — This is a fateful time for America, Iraq, and the world as the air is sucked out of the diplomacy balloon and all sides brace themselves for what looks inexorably like armed conflict.
The Bush administration dismisses the idea of prolonged inspections as being close to irrelevance. It wants Iraq simply to own up and tell what has happened to tens of thousands of liters of biological agents and tens of thousands of missiles known to have existed and not accounted for. The Iraqi government says it has done all it can do or means to do about cooperating with the United Nations and proclaims that it is now resigned to war. A flurry of rumors about a deal with Saddam Hussein for exile and amnesty has subsided. And Secretary of State Colin Powell has about given up his strenuous efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement.
Mr. Powell accomplished something of a miracle last August when he induced a skeptical President Bush to try to assemble a supportive coalition through the UN, arguing that unilateral military action simply would not work. Powell achieved a consensus in the Security Council but was unable to sustain it. In the end, it was undermined by the defection of France and Germany.
French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder are acting in the tradition of President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who a half-century ago sealed a partnership between the two ancient enemies that dominated the integration of Europe and influenced relations with Britain and America.
On the continent, there was always a little scorn for British insularity, typified by a joke at the time that had a London newspaper with a banner headline reading, "STORM IN CHANNEL, CONTINENT CUT OFF." France and Germany showed more respect for the US, which had helped to revive Europe with the Marshall Plan and to protect it with its nuclear umbrella.
But America was no longer the indispensable power once the cold war ended and the Soviet threat was removed. In recent times, with rising anti-American and antiwar sentiment, French and German leaders found they could score political points by Bush-bashing. Mr. Schröder ran on an anti-Bush platform to win reelection last September.
So it was no surprise when European members of the North Atlantic Alliance met in Amsterdam and rejected an American request for assistance in a military operation against Iraq. France and Germany issued a joint statement condemning the rush to hostilities. At a separate meeting in Versailles, Mr. Chirac said, "War is not inevitable," and Schröder said he would use all his power to disarm Iraq without war.
France has a veto in the UN Security Council. Germany has rotating membership and is president of the Council for the month of February. If America goes to war despite the opposition of these two major European partners, there will be a wound to the alliance that may take a long time to heal.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke slightingly of the "old Europe," as though placing more reliance on some new Europe of formerly Communist-ruled East European states. The long-patient Powell appeared to run out of patience before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He needled France and Germany with a reminder that America had helped to rescue Europe from the fascist tyranny that led to World War II. Remarkably, the same Powell who last August persuaded President Bush not to try to go it alone in a war against Iraq spoke now as though he had given up hope for a diplomatic solution and was ready for military action - alone if need be.
He told the assemblage of government and business leaders in the Swiss resort, "When we feel strongly about something, we will lead, we will act, even if others are not prepared to join us." It was as though the lonesome leader of the doves in the Bush administration had gone over to the unilateralist hawks, with consequences not only for the showdown with Iraq, but for the future of America's European alliances.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.