- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Brussels. — Writing over half a decade ago, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington envisaged a "clash of civilizations." The clash would come between the democratic West and a united Islamic world. The causes would reflect irreconcilable differences in ideology, religion, values and culture abetted by geopolitical rivalry.

Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn observed that making predictions, especially about the future, "ain't easy." Mr. Huntington got the clash part right. However, that the confrontation would come between the United States and much of the rest of world, including longstanding allies, is a stunning irony. And who would have guessed that, in the quest to disarm the notorious Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, President George W. Bush would be cast by foreign opinion in the role of villain and the bully threatening war? How did this happen?

By late 2001, Mr. Bush was riding high. He had demonstrated great leadership in dealing with the aftermath of September 11th. The battle in Afghanistan surprised many in quickly driving the Taliban from power and in turning Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda from hunters to hunted. American credibility was strong and support of the war on terror was wide spread around the globe.

But the focus of the Bush administration began shifting to Iraq. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush identified the evil axis of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The next fall, U.S. national strategy embraced "preemptive" strikes. While the notion was not new and throughout the Cold War America never renounced the capacity to strike first with nuclear weapons, public reaction, largely abroad, was very negative. And, as the administration seemed prepared to attack Iraq absent approval from Congress and the United Nations, the worst fears of American "unilateralism" and arrogance became frequent criticisms leveled at Mr. Bush.

Today, nearly a quarter-of-a-million U.S. and British troops are in or headed for the Persian Gulf. Saddam acts as if he is wining the propaganda war and adverse reactions around the world will restrain Mr. Bush from launching a war. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is determined to disarm Saddam.

The administration asserts that there is urgency in accomplishing that task, and waiting six months or a year is a futile and potentially dangerous exercise. Furthermore, the administration understandably defines the problem as Saddam's refusal to comply with 17 U.N. resolutions to disarm. Inspections, in that view, simply cannot and will not work. Finally, the administration is guardedly optimistic over the consequences of another war in the Gulf.

Deposing Saddam and installing democracy in Iraq will have salutary effect in the region and elsewhere, if White House optimism proves right. Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia will pay attention. Finishing off Saddam will also help the war on terror and deny sources of WMD to al Qaeda. In simple terms, the world will be a better place. And, it is possible that the remaining members of the axis of evil will be next on the target lists if their policies do not change.

Certainly, in Europe and Asia, the view could not be more divergent. Regardless of actual and latent anti-Americanism fanned by the dark sides of globalization and the rough edges of American culture not universally admired, there are fundamental differences of opinion. These are the grounds for the clash. And they are serious.

Most non-Americans see little urgency in starting a war against Saddam. Frankly, many reject the evidence linking Saddam and bin Laden. Inspections seem to be working, no matter how prickly and recalcitrant Iraq may be in cooperating. Until such time that all peaceful measures fail, war is not the preferred course of action.

There is also profound division over the consequences of war. President Jacques Chirac of France, chastised in the U.S. press for his cynically based opposition to Mr. Bush, believes that serious destabilization is inevitable if war begins before all other peaceful means are exhausted. Many leaders share this conclusion, if not publicly, certainly privately. And France's pessimism is understandable. That nation suffered debilitating defeats in the short 1870 disaster against Prussia, and again in 1914 and 1940. If that were not sufficient, after World War II, eight years in Vietnam and eight in Algeria were bloody reminders of overreach.

The administration is set on war. If war comes, the peace will determine success or failure. Success requires the cooperation of the international community. The administration has many bridges to repair before they are washed away by ill will. It better start soon. NATO and the United Nations are the obvious candidates for immediate repair. But other hot spots, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and Pakistani instability, cannot be left before they explode or spill over. This is indeed a clash of cultures. It could change the world as we know it.

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