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Last Saturday, the world witnessed what was probably the largest mass protest in modern history. Between 6 million and 10 million people turned out on the streets of some 600 cities in 60 countries around the globe, united by a single, passionate plea: that President Bush not plunge the world into war.

Watching the protests unfold around the world, it was hard not to think of September 11, 2001, of the monstrous terrorist attacks unleashed on America that day and the mass outpouring of worldwide sympathy that followed — and of the breathtaking speed with which that sympathy has been squandered by the clumsy arrogance of this administration.

In the space of less than 18 months, America has been transformed in the eyes of the world from the embodiment of human freedom and world order into the greatest symbolic threat to that world order. Striving to lead the free world, we have instead become objects of fear and anger. In our zeal to rally the world against Saddam Hussein and his poisons we have achieved the very opposite: Our nation perversely finds itself isolated and reviled while the Butcher of Baghdad laughs in his lair.

The perversity of our fortunes was made depressingly plain the day before the rallies, when the United Nations Security Council met to debate America’s case for war. Our secretary of state, the much-admired Colin Powell, was caught flat-footed when his photographic evidence of Iraqi duplicity was revealed by the U.N.’s own chief weapons inspector to be flimsy at best. Then, in a display of raw emotion unprecedented in that citadel of propriety, the council chamber erupted into applause as the French foreign minister called on the council to delay action and give diplomacy another chance.

The isolation and humiliation to which America has been subjected during these last days is painful, and it is dangerous. It is painful because we know ourselves to be a noble nation. We led the free world to victory in two world wars, and we led in the creation of the U.N. Our courage, ingenuity and creativity are the envy of the world. And yet now, at a moment of crisis, we are made the villains. This should not be.

It is dangerous because the crisis is real. The end of the Cold War, the spread of new technologies and the rise of divisive new passions, chief among them a newly militant Islam, have combined to create a new world order of terrifying volatility. Elusive mega-terrorists like Osama bin Laden represent a genuine threat to the democratic way of life. So do rogue dictators like Saddam. But they are not the same threat. Painting them with one brush only weakens our case against both.

America, with its unmatched combination of moral authority and military might, can and should lead the search for answers to these challenges. Instead of leading, however, the Bush administration has chosen a path of swagger and bluster. Rather than winning over our allies by persuasion and negotiation, we have sought to bludgeon them into compliance. It should not have surprised us that it would come to this.

Our isolation is doubly dangerous because we will need our allies after the dust has settled. It’s been noted before that if and when America takes Baghdad, we will have inherited a monumental burden. We may succeed in governing well, implanting seeds of democracy and perhaps even spreading a new spirit of openness in the broader Middle East, as some of the administration’s more starry-eyed idealists imagine. Or we may find that we have sown a devil’s seed of rage and vengeance that will come back to torment us more than ever. Which outcome comes to pass will depend in large measure on how we prepare the ground today. At this moment, the signs are discouraging.

Our isolation is all the more painful because it is so utterly unnecessary. The nations that are leading the protests against our policies, beginning with France and Germany, are our friends; more than that, they are in fundamental agreement with our goals. That became clear in the immediate aftermath of our diplomatic debacle when agreement was reached, first in NATO, then in the European Union, on a statement of principles that amounted to a full endorsement of the basic American demand for complete Iraqi disarmament. The internecine quarrel that threatens to sunder the Atlantic alliance is, at bottom, a debate over tactics and timing, not principle. The administration is right to want Saddam defanged. America of all nations need not be lectured on the merits of democracy. At the same time, the peoples of Europe are right to fear the consequences of armed conflict and to hope for some other solution. No region of the world comes by the fear of war more honestly.

It’s all but forgotten, but in the October 2000 television debates that arguably cemented Bush’s credibility as a candidate, the future president spoke out for a carefully nuanced policy on the use of force in international conflicts. Troops should be committed with great caution, he said in the first debate on October 3, and in close consultation with “our friends in NATO.” Going further, he presented a four-point test to be met before troops were committed: First, that the crisis represent a genuine threat to “our vital national interests”; second, that there be “a clear understanding as to what the mission would be”; third, that our troops be “prepared and trained to win,” and fourth, that there be a “clear exit strategy.”

In the case of Iraq, the president may well have met his first and third tests, but he has clearly failed to meet the second and fourth — understanding our mission in entering the country, and having an exit strategy. Most important, he has utterly abandoned his first, overriding principle: to act “with our friends.”

In that campaign’s second debate, on October 11, Bush made the point even more starkly. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” he said. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.” Those words showed wisdom when they were first spoken. They are more compelling than ever today.

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