The collapse of Iraq diplomacy appears to make inevitable a war that will define George Bush's presidency for history, remake America's relationships with old allies, and change forever a volatile area of the world - one way or another.
The last hope for peace is that Saddam Hussein will simply capitulate, something virtually no one in Washington really expects him to do. Absent that, the timetable for the beginning of combat becomes very short.
For officials used to the enveloping solidarity of the cold war, in which NATO members stood shoulder to shoulder against a threat all judged the same, it is surely a strange moment. For perhaps the first time in its history, the US is on the brink of a foreign war of which most of the world disapproves. Public opinion in America supports the war, but not overwhelmingly so. The Democratic political opposition has no unified position of its own.
To go to war in such circumstances is a fateful step. But the administration has long said it would take that step if necessary. In ending its attempts to win a second resolution in the UN Security Council, the White House proved it was not bluffing - if that was necessary. "It was our judgment that no further purpose would be served by pushing this resolution," said Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday.
Thus the UN Security Council process has ended in something of a train wreck. France, Germany, and other opponents of war failed in their effort to rein in what they see as US belligerence. The US failed to gain the UN stamp of approval for its actions.
The Bush administration is already echoing with admonitions of "I told you so" from officials who thought going through the United Nations to deal with Iraq was a bad idea all along, many observers say.
At the same time, some countries that worried before that the US was tending to throw its weight around, disregard multilateral forms of action, and favor military might over other means of exercising power, feel confirmed in their fears.
Over the years "[the US] has developed a lot of diplomatic capital as it has tried to adhere to international law and reconcile its status as the world's major power with those limits," says Jeswald Salacuse, a foreign-affairs expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass. "But if we reject the very international institution we helped to found to address the world's security issues, we risk losing that good will."
At the same time, the US may place even more faith in a path of independent action, especially if a war is fought and won quickly, Mr. Salacuse says. "People in the Bush administration will be encouraged to think even more that we should have acted earlier and on our own if necessary. They'll say it was a waste of time and prestige to play at the UN and lose the diplomatic game."
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that the UN "has proven incapable of dealing with the threat that Saddam Hussein represents, incapable of enforcing its own resolutions, incapable of meeting the challenge we face in the 21st century of rogue states armed with deadly weapons." It was Mr. Cheney who was most skeptical about "going the UN route" on Iraq when the administration took it up last year.
BY any scenario, the tally sheet on what was won and lost by going through the UN is a long one. In the near term, the US will face strained relations with France, but also with Germany and Russia. They rejected the US push for war, believing weapons inspections were working.
But even European officials agree that one result of the debate - which for many exposed the widening gulf between American and European military power - will be a new emphasis on higher defense spending on the Continent. A more militarily consequential Europe is something US policy has encouraged for years.
At the same time, however, the Bush administration appears to have concluded that a "pacifist" Europe, led by France, was never going to approve the use of force against Iraq.
That thinking is already leading to a realignment of US alliances in Europe. The US - at least under Bush - is likely to work more easily with what it considers the "new" Europe: countries on the continent's southern flank and among the former Soviet satellites.
The image of Bush standing on a remote Atlantic island Sunday with three other leaders - all of whom already agreed with the US push for war - does not do much to boost America's standing in the world. But some analysts say there is nevertheless an "up" side for the US in having stuck with six months of diplomacy
The president "was over-confident going in to this that he could persuade the [Security] Council and many other countries to come over to his view, but he will have won points for the US in simply having made the effort," says Edward Luck, an expert at Columbia University.
Much of the future path of international cooperation will be determined by how the war with Iraq goes. A quick war that soon has the US returning to the Security Council to address Iraq's humanitarian needs, lift international sanctions and revamp Iraq's oil-for-food program, would have less impact than a protracted conflict that keeps pre-war bitterness alive.
The same will be true of America's image in the world. "Our reputation and prestige as a country that backs and exemplifies the rule of law is going to take a big blow," says Mr. Salacuse, "but if we are able to go in and win quickly, the opportunity to repair that damage rises."
But short war or no, many of the international institutions the US has relied on for half a century will have been turned upside down, and will require either repair - or new alternatives.