An Empire Too Far

As he prepares a war against Iraq, President Bush's request for help and approval from NATO and the United Nations has split those international bodies, and could end up disabling them.

That's a legacy Mr. Bush must weigh heavily against his laudable goal of eliminating Iraq's terrorist-friendly weapons.

So far, Bush has decided the "course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others." He will risk almost anything, even close ties with allies, to save one American from being killed in a terrorist attack.

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It's hard to fault the commander in chief for seeking zero risk for his country after Sept. 11. But he must also ask if greater risks lie ahead if the US becomes an isolated superpower, one that now claims its military supremacy must last forever but could wind up overextending itself in places like Iraq, leaving the nation more vulnerable than it is now.

Empires of the past have faltered when their reach exceeded their grasp, causing more damage than the harm they initially sought to avoid.

Bush has now gone beyond merely defending Americans. Like several recent presidents, he claims a unique historical and religious imperative for the US by stating, "The advance of freedom depends on America's strength." But for Bush it is "strength beyond challenge," one that will put a limit on dangerous rivalries between nations.

Before Sept. 11, Bush called for a humble foreign policy, but in his State of the Union address last month he said that the "call of history has come to the right country."

In seeking this destiny, Bush may be fulfilling his father's post-cold-war quest to create a new world order.

During the cold war, the US-Soviet contest created a bipolar world. And before that, there was a multipolar order, based on a balance of power between mainly European nations. Now, it seems, Bush wants the US to be a unipolar power that can prevent wars by preempting them with force, and by deciding which nation is entitled to possess which weapons.

No wonder countries accustomed to the orders of old - Germany, France, and Russia - oppose the US on the immediate issue of Iraq. They don't want to live in a giant's shadow, unheard and unheeded. Smaller nations, meanwhile, that never knew great power or that depend on the US, are siding with Bush for now. But how long before even these Lilliputians also try to throw a rope over the American Gulliver?

After World War II, the US was more powerful (relative to others) than it is now. Yet it chose to share and channel that power through international organizations it helped set up. Now, before the war on terrorism becomes a crisis of imperial overreach, the US needs to decide again if it can work with other nations even as it defends itself and promotes freedom.

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