WASHINGTON—As an anxious world awaits a report Friday from UN weapons inspectors, the United States finds itself at a thorny crossroad, and the path it chooses could define its role in the world as profoundly as any event since World War II.
America hasn't often been in this place. On the cusp of war, historic alliances are frayed and fragile. Institutions that the U.S. helped create and nurture, the United Nations and NATO, could lose their relevance and effectiveness.
Domestically, officials are warning of an impending terrorist attack and imploring people not to take up arms but rather to take up rolls of duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect against a chemical or biological attack.
The economy is sputtering, and conflict, at home or aboard, will only make it worse.
A series of complicating and confounding events has created this moment. And the stakes are much greater than the narrow confines of the report that the weapons inspectors will present Friday in New York. President Bush's newly minted doctrine of pre-emptive warfare seems close to its first test case, with or without the assent of the UN Security Council.
"How the U.S. acts in the days ahead will have profound consequences for the future," Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien told a dinner gathering of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday night.
A near-term military victory in Iraq could still yield long-term diplomatic problems throughout Europe and beyond. If the U.S. does not find common ground with China, Germany, France and Russia--countries that have sharply challenged the Bush administration on Iraq--each individual alliance will be strained. The relationship with China, for one, could have implications for how the U.S. handles the emerging nuclear threat in North Korea.
If the UN report leads to intransigence in NATO regarding military support for Turkey, the U.S. could simply defy the alliance, which has been a cornerstone of international security for more than a half-century.
Bush is on footing fundamentally different from that of his predecessors who have considered war. The U.S. became involved in World War I and World War II haltingly at first. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War."
In other conflicts, U.S. involvement was guided by the principle of containment to halt the spread of communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union. Still other wars resulted from provocative, hostile acts that directly affected national security and economic well-being.
Iraq urgency questioned
None of those urgent factors apply to Iraq. And that is in part why Friday's report and how the U.S. chooses to respond to it will have such long-term repercussions.
"I view this decision as a fateful decision for America's future place in the world," said William Galston, a former senior official in the Clinton administration and policy analyst at the University of Maryland.
"It will redefine our relationship with every alliance that we are a member of, every institution that we are a member of, and every region and every country with which we have diplomatic, economic and military relationships."
For Bush, how the U.S. proceeds will no doubt shape the 2004 presidential campaign and, if he wins, his second term.
On Thursday, Bush restated his underlying reason for changing from the durable policy of containment to one of proactive invasion: "The world changed on September the 11th, 2001."
In a speech to sailors in Jacksonville, Fla., Bush moved quickly to Iraq and challenged the United Nations with sharp words.
"Now the world's most important multilateral body faces a decision. The decision is this for the United Nations: `When you say something, does it mean anything?'" he said.
He added that he did not think that the UN would fade into an "ineffective, irrelevant debating society."