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As America’s war machine rolled into action in the Middle East this week and humanity watched in awe and foreboding, there was no longer any denying the blunt fact that a new page was being written in world history. America, the world’s sole superpower, was claiming the right to make war anywhere — not for defense against aggression, but to prevent a possible aggression. In the name of preserving peace and the rule of law we were declaring ourselves free of the bodies of international law and peacekeeping so painstakingly built up during the last six decades by what we like to think of as the world community. The post-World War II era was finally over, and to many it seemed we were now entering the terrifying run-up to World War III.

If this is true, then it is essential to remember when and how this new era in history began. It did not begin this week, but rather a year and a half ago, on September 11, 2001. That was the day that America and the world were forced to realize that the old order was finished and done with. The crashing of those hijacked jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought home with horrific force the fact that the orderly system of nation states governed by laws and etiquette, going back more than two centuries to the battlefields and drawing rooms of Europe, was collapsing in on itself. The old order had been undermined by the emergence of shadowy terrorist networks driven by mad dreams of conquest and empowered by once-unthinkable new technologies of communication and weaponry.

There is much to criticize in the way President Bush has responded to the challenge of this new era. Many of us have argued that his view of international relations is dangerously simplistic, his approach to international alliances and world bodies too laden by suspicion. Nothing illustrates the weakness of his approach more starkly than the contrast between last fall, when the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441 demanding that Iraq disarm, and this week, when the United States prepared to roll into Baghdad to enforce the resolution and found itself virtually alone. Even allowing for the truculence and cynicism of our erstwhile allies, it is clear that the president could and should have handled the crisis with greater skill. Facing what nearly the entire world agreed was the barbarity of Saddam Hussein’s regime, it seems undeniable that the world’s unity of purpose could have been maintained if someone else were leading our side.

But George Bush is leading our side. The other side consists not of Jacques Chirac, nor of John Ashcroft, but of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and their minions. This crisis is, at bottom, not a dispute about how best to conduct the affairs of democracy, but how to save democracy from its sworn enemies. It may still be true, as we have argued repeatedly, that war was not the right path, at least not now, not like this. But if war it must be, let us not forget which side we are on.

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