The bombs have started falling and the world is once again at war. While the adversary is the same — the regime in Baghdad — and the terrain familiar, this conflict is much different from the first clash between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the international coalition led by the United States 12 years ago. In this war, as in the first one, the result is almost certain to be the same: a victory for the West. Yet the collateral damage will be much greater. Rather than heralding the birth of a new world order, the second Persian Gulf War may well mark the beginning of an era of uncertainty and disorder.

The official countdown to war began earlier this week when U.S. President George W. Bush gave Mr. Hussein 48 hours to step down, but the roots of the conflict were sown over a decade ago. In the aftermath of defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq agreed to United Nations resolutions requiring total disarmament as a condition of peace. Those agreements were mostly honored in the breach. Shamefully, however, the world chose to ignore those violations, and Mr. Hussein gladly pocketed the opportunity to rebuild his arsenals.

Even the U.S. was complicit in this arrangement, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the American strategic calculus. Candidate Bush excoriated his predecessor’s foreign policy for its arrogance and inability to focus on U.S. national interests; President Bush has awakened to new threats and declared a doctrine of preemption in which the U.S. would move against enemies rather than let them strike first. Iraq, with its history of attempts to build arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, its use of such weapons against its own citizens, and its record of aggression against its neighbors, was deemed a clear and present danger demanding a response.

The world agrees that Iraq is a danger. The disagreement has been over the best way to handle that threat. For many, the road to war must run through the United Nations. Only with authorization from the Security Council can a cause be deemed legitimate. In fact, the U.S. has not challenged that interpretation. Instead, Mr. Bush claims that the world body authorized action when it unanimously passed Resolution 1441 last year, which declared that a “material breach” of Iraq’s obligations would have “serious consequences.” There is little doubt that Iraq has lied and obstructed the work of international weapons inspectors; we may soon know that for sure if, as feared, Mr. Hussein uses the weapons he says he does not have against the invading forces.

Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction will not change the outcome of the war. Iraq has no chance against the most powerful army in human history, backed by a coalition of some 35 other nations. But the real impact of this war will not be measured by casualty lists. Rather, the damage that is to be most feared is that done to international institutions and the organizing principles of international society itself.

War may be the pursuit of politics by other means, but it certainly represents the failure of diplomacy. What is remarkable today is not the fact that 35 nations — Japan among them — have chosen to safeguard the authority of the United Nations and move against a nation that constitutes a threat to world peace, but that only 35 governments have joined the cause. In this, the war is truly a failure of U.S. diplomacy.

Mr. Bush’s inability to rally more governments to his side, despite the outpouring of sympathy and good will that followed the 9/11 attacks and despite Iraq’s history of abuse and deception, is astonishing. Explanations for this include practical concern about the outcome of the war in the Middle East and the instability it might unleash as well as the wish on the part of ideologues and cynics that the U.S. not succeed.

The rifts that have emerged will be difficult to bridge. The strains in old alliances, particularly between the U.S. and some of its Atlantic allies, could yet prove fatal. Divisions within Europe may prove equally hard to overcome. Progress in expanding NATO and enlarging the European Union was always going to be tough; it has become exponentially more so.

Severe collateral damage has already been done to the U.N. After the high-water mark of Nov. 8, when the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, the U.N.’s failure to rise to the challenge posed by Iraq is a bitter disappointment. Washington’s mistrust of the world body, and international law more generally, has, for many, been validated. U.S. action without explicit U.N. approval raises fundamental questions about how international disputes will be resolved in the future. The U.N. must be at the center of that process. As soon as the war in Iraq has concluded, reconstruction must begin on the country that has been repressed for decades by the Hussein regime — and on the U.N. itself.

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