I have a confession to make. Right after 9/11, I was given a CD by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which included its rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I put it in my car's CD player and played that song over and over, often singing along as I drove. It wasn't only the patriotism it evoked that stirred me, but the sense of national unity. That song was what the choir sang at the close of the memorial service at the National Cathedral right after 9/11. Even though that was such a wrenching moment for our nation, I look back on it now with a certain longing and nostalgia. For it was such a moment of American solidarity, with people rallying to people and everyone rallying to the president.
And that is what makes me so sad about this moment. It appears we are on the verge of going to war in a way that will burst all the national solidarity and good will that followed 9/11, within our own country and the world.
This war is so unprecedented that it has always been a gut call _ and my gut has told me four things.
First, this is a war of choice. Saddam Hussein poses no direct threat to us today. But confronting him is a legitimate choice _ much more legitimate than knee-jerk liberals and pacifists think. Removing Hussein _ with his obsession to obtain weapons of mass destruction _ ending his tyranny and helping to nurture a more progressive Iraq that could spur reform across the Arab-Muslim world are the best long-term responses to bin Ladenism. Some things are true even if George W. Bush believes them.
The second thing my gut says, though, is that building a decent peace in Iraq will be so much more difficult than the Bush hawks think. Iraq is the Arab Yugoslavia. It is a country, congenitally divided among Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, that was forged by British power and has never been held together by anything other than an iron fist. Transforming Iraq into a state with an accountable, consensual and decent government would be the biggest, most audacious, war of choice any U.S. president has ever made _ because it doesn't just involve getting rid of Hussein, but also building an integrated Iraq for the first time.
Which explains my third gut feeling _ that to succeed in such an undertaking, in a country with so many wounds and pent-up resentments, will require an unrushed process that is viewed as legitimate in Iraq, the region and the world. It cannot be done if we are looking over our shoulders every day, which is why U.N. approval and allied support are so important.
My main criticism of President Bush is that he has failed to acknowledge how unusual this war of choice is _ for both Americans and the world _ and therefore hasn't offered the bold policies that have to go with it. Instead, the president has hyped the threat and asserted that this is a war of no choice, then combined it all with his worst pre-9/11 business as usual: budget-busting tax cuts, indifference to global environmental concerns, a gas-guzzling energy policy, neglect of the Arab-Israeli peace process and bullying diplomacy.
And this brings me to my last gut feeling: Despite all the noise, a majority of decent people in the world still hunger for a compromise that forces Hussein to comply, or be exposed, and does not weaken America.
So, Mr. President, before you shake the dice on a legitimate but audacious war, please, shake the dice just once on some courageous diplomacy. Pick up where Woodrow Wilson left off: Fly to Paris, bring the leaders of France, Russia, China and Britain together, along with the chairman of the Arab League summit conference, and offer them any reasonable amount of time for more inspections _ if they will agree on specific disarmament benchmarks Hussein has to meet and support an automatic U.N. authorization of force if he doesn't. If France still snubs you, the world will see that you are the one trying to preserve collective security, while France only wants to make mischief. That will be very important to the legitimacy of any war.
Mr. President, I never felt more traumatized as an American than in the days after 9/11. But despite the very real threats, I also never felt more optimistic _ because of the national unity we had, and you had, to face those threats. If whatever is left of that post-9/11 solidarity is exploded by a divisive, unilateral war in Iraq, we will not only be sacrificing good feelings, but also the key to managing this complex, dangerous world. That is our ability to stand united and with others _ our ability to sing, together, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and have the world at least hum along.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times News Service