St. Petersburg Times
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U.S. must navigate past fog of peace

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

Every day for several weeks, I've heard a blaze of reports from Iraq, read columns and columns in several newspapers. Lunchtime came and went, then dinner. Baghdad was then liberated. As expected, we won. Saddam Hussein was out, maybe dead. The easy things went better than expected. It isn't over, but the fog of war is slowly lifting.

Now comes the hard part. The fog of peace clouds the future. If American military credibility is at its highest in the world, American political credibility has never been lower nor has America's reputation, not only in the Arab world but in much of Europe, even Britain. George Bush may have more than 80 percent American approval, but that, too, will be tested.

We now have to usher Iraq and its 23-million people into a new democracy if that is possible, a new Middle East if that is possible, too. That is what it's supposed to be all about: getting rid of Saddam Hussein certainly, destroying the weapons of mass destruction he is supposed to have, surely. One day, probably soon, the fog will lift enough to show us what exactly has been done and how. Hungry people, however, won't be grateful for long.

New battle lines now have formed. One is at home between Defense and State with the opposing generals Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. President Bush sits somewhere in the middle, perhaps nearer to Rumsfeld. However much we hear and read, most of us don't really know yet. I don't.

A second battlefront lies between the United States and Europe. Whose side will Tony Blair end up on? He has been a constant and faithful American ally while demonstrators at home have been calling for his blood. In Iraq he has put his money, and troops, where his mouth is. But as a peacemaker, he has also been plainly worried.

"We have to win the peace," an American aviator, just back from a raid somewhere in Iraq, said on television last week.

Bush and Blair have called the role of the United Nations in all this "vital." The word is meaningless until we know just what it means.

France, Germany, Russia and others seem to want the United States to turn the peace and Iraq's future over to the United Nations. The administration's answer seems to be, Why should it? They made it impossible for the United Nations to endorse the American action. Now, at the least, they want a slice of pie that emerged. History has demonstrated that they have often been clumsy in eating it. The United States is the winner of the war, if there is one. It plans to run the transition itself with the help of Iraqi exiles, some of whom have been gone from Iraq for more than 30 years. The question is, What kind of a "vital role" will the United Nations have?

In the view of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other hard-liners, it apparently should be as little as possible aside from providing aid and resources for the role of administering Iraq and building a new government, all in the charge of the United States. Secretary of State Powell seems to think it should be a little more than that.

The first showdown between the United States and Europe, perhaps between the United States and most of the world, is likely to come in the U.N. Security Council whose bitter quarrels robbed the United States of U.N. backing in the war in Iraq. Will the quarreling be the same this time?

Not since the Suez crisis nearly half a century ago have the Western alliance and the United Nations been so divided. We are at a watershed of history at least as great as that when the United States refused to back the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal zone in 1956.

When the United States failed to join the League of Nations after World War I, it played a major role in destroying the organization. Without the United States, Britain and France never dared to stand up to Adolf Hitler when they had the chance. Now will the United States again contribute to destroying the United Nations by ignoring it? The hard-liners don't seem to care. Powell and the State Department do. How much will it take? How much do France and Germany care?

With American optimism after every war, we glimpse sunny, peaceful uplands where flowers bloom and birds sing. It was the same after World War I, World War II, the Cold War, even the first Gulf War that, marginally, I helped cover. We never quite got there, and we never will. This time it's even less certain.

Soon the fog will be lifting. We'll see what happens.

Wilbur G. Landrey is the retired chief correspondent of the Times.

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