THINGS FELL APART so quickly.
At the beginning of this millennium, the Cold War was over, the prosperous United States was the sole remaining superpower and global opinion was largely sympathetic to U.S. aims. In the wake of brutal ethnic wars in Central Europe and Africa, the international community had forged a new determination to prevent conflict and atrocities. The volatile Middle East was quiet, and the world seemed headed toward stability rather than chaos.
Only six years later, things couldn't be more different. The Bush administration's tunnel-vision approach to foreign policy has pushed the U.S. and the world into a devastating tailspin of conflict without end.
In Afghanistan, this year is shaping up to be the deadliest yet for U.S. troops. In Iraq, which President Bush promised would be "a source of true stability in the region," the carnage has been mind-boggling, and by late September, the fighting will have dragged on for 3 1/2 years -- the same length of time it took us to defeat Germany in World War II.
The total implosion of the Middle East highlights the continuing decline of U.S. prestige and influence. As Israeli planes -- built with our money -- pummel Lebanon, our world is becoming ever more perilous and American preeminence ever more fragile.
The violent Hezbollah incursion into Israel was a deliberate provocation, to be sure, but Israel's response has dizzyingly upped the ante. Hundreds of Lebanese civilians -- a disproportionate number -- already have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. More than a dozen Israeli civilians have died in retaliatory Hezbollah rocket attacks.
And that's just the beginning.
If Syria or Iran gets drawn into the conflict to bail out their Hezbollah client, Israel will retaliate against them as well. Spooked by Iran's burgeoning nuclear capabilities, Israel may be looking for just such an excuse to launch a punishing strike against Iran.
Even if the conflict doesn't spread, it is already hardening the battle lines between the U.S. and our allies and the Muslim world. The conflict will breed a new generation of martyrs, a new generation of hungry children growing up amid the rubble and a new generation of mistrustful, bitter fighters -- some of whom will be willing to blow themselves up for the chance of taking Israelis or Americans down with them.
The cataclysm in the Middle East represents the final and total failure of the Bush administration's foreign policy. After 9/11, the world was on our side, and we had a unique opportunity to turn tragedy into triumph, to strengthen the alliances and global institutions that have long sustained American preeminence.
We wasted that opportunity. We promised to make the world safer, but we've turned it into a tinderbox. We promised to unite our allies, but we've sown rage and division. We promised to promote democracy, but we did so through violent and poorly thought-through "regime change" rather than through diplomacy, friendship and foreign aid.
Now Israel, our closest Middle Eastern ally, appears hell-bent on destroying Lebanon -- the second most democratic state in the region, which has been struggling successfully to cast off the Syrian yoke.
A year ago, the administration was pledging to support Lebanon's fragile and hard-gained democracy. Today, "the country has been torn to shreds," as Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora bitterly told diplomats. "Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?"
And as the conflagration worsens, Washington is indecisive and impotent. We might use our leverage with Israel to push for an immediate cease-fire and a long-term political solution, but we lack the courage to criticize Israel. The administration's insistence on the right to unilateral self-defense (no matter how disproportionate) would make any U.S. criticism of Israel hypocritical anyway.
We could use our leverage with Syria to get Syria to make Hezbollah back off, but we have no leverage with Syria. We refuse to have direct discussions with Syria anyway.
We could use our leverage with Iran to get Iran to make Hezbollah back off, but we have no leverage with Iran. And we refuse to have direct discussions with Iran anyway, unless Iran agrees to all our nuclear demands in advance.
And Israel, Syria and Iran all know that they can do as they wish at the moment without fear of a meaningful U.S. response. They understand (as does North Korea's Kim Jong Il) that we're bogged down in Iraq, too overextended to spend time, money or troops to stop the latest catastrophe.
We've burned up every ounce of goodwill we ever had, we've burned every diplomatic bridge we ever had, and now we can do nothing but sit on our hands as the ashes rain down all around us.
Engraved on a wall at the British Imperial War Museum is a phrase attributed to Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." It was meant as a warning about the perils of arrogance and empire -- and the Bush administration seems determined to prove the aphorism's truth.