Sir John Keegan remarks in his History of the First World War that if Austria had struck at Serbia immediately after the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, world war would have been avoided. Terrorists supported by the Serbian government had murdered the heir to the Austrian throne, and some form of response was inevitable. It was Austria’s vacillation that gave time for the other Great Powers to take sides, and for the pan-Slavists to convince Czar Nicholas II that Russia’s destiny demanded support for the Serbs.

Had Washington struck Iraq shortly after September 11, 2001, that would have been that. By giving the rest of the world time to form a stop-America coalition, Washington has done something similar. Its choices now boil down to standing down or acting alone upon a stage crafted to place American motives in the worst possible light. The danger is that America will find itself fighting a sort of Chechnyan war on a global scale. President George W. Bush cannot wrap his mind around this.

It is a matter of conjecture when Bush’s nerve will snap. What we know with certainty is that the world looks uncannily different to him than it did on February 26, when he delivered a rousing call for democratic reform throughout the Middle East.

The democratic institutions of Turkey, the region’s largest republic, have rejected an American troop presence, as American ships waited off the Turkish coast to unload material for the Iraq war. Ninety-four percent of Turks oppose Bush’s war to bring democracy to the Arab world they ruled until the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Bush has his answer.

Iraq, meanwhile, sprang the trap it had baited with its Al Samoud 2 missiles. After Hans Blix and his inspectors declared themselves shocked, shocked to discover banned weaponry – something they never could have done without Iraqi help – the Iraqis are destroying them, and Blix obligingly has declared this to be a significant act of disarmament.

Among the “coalition of the willing,” such stalwarts as Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi make they will support the United States, but only if the United States obtains the backing of the Security Council. That makes American foreign policy, as some wags observe, dependent on the vote of Guinea.

Washington’s war hawks will blame Secretary of State Colin Powell for entangling America’s interest in the spider-webs of the UN Security Council. The blame lies at the doorstep of the neo-conservative war-hawks, who persuaded the president that America should undertake a democratizing mission among a people who never once voted for their own leaders.

George W. Bush is a tough-minded and effective leader, not the fumble-mouthed cowboy of European press caricature. But his predicament brings to mind Clausewitz’s observation that all the commanders whom history derides for vacillation had risen through the ranks as men of daring and decisiveness – in junior command positions. Not personal courage as such, but strategic vision, makes possible Entschlossenheit – decisiveness. It is strategic vision, a clear notion of the array of forces at work on the battlefield and in the wider war, which enables the commander to see beyond the fog of war.

If only Bush employed the rhetoric of democracy as a cynical screen behind which to pursue American security interests, all might be well. In his heart of hearts, however, he believes that Islam is a religion no different in its foundations than Christianity, and Arabs are no different from the rest of us. Here is what he said on February 26: “There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”

Japan and Germany, to be sure, had industrial economies to rival America’s before World War II. Yet American occupiers succeeded in humiliating their cultures, with the result that birth rates have collapsed in both nations. Within a couple of centuries German and Japanese will be spoken only in Hell (as Admiral Nimitz predicted after Pearl Harbor). Fixing other folks’ cultures is not such a simple matter.

Much of the Islamic world does not want to be absorbed into American values in this fashion. It will fight to the death to prevent this. On September 22, 2001, 11 days after the World Trade Center burned, I wrote in this space (Washington’s racism and the Islamist trap), to the irritation of some Asia Times Online readers:

“Implicit in America’s pompous elocution against terrorism is a Kiplingesque premise that it is carrying the White Man’s Burden to the underprivileged Middle East and South Asia. Except for a few “fundamentalist” recalcitrants, Washington believes, everyone in those parts of the world wants what it wants: suburban tract housing developments, video on demand, fast food egalitarianism and economic opportunity … America’s unwarranted contempt for its Islamist adversary already has had terrible consequences, and well might have catastrophic ones.

“The notion that intelligent and educated Muslims who know Western culture, speak Western languages and have studied at Western universities well might choose a different civilization does not occur to Midwesterners and Texans. What else is there besides economic opportunity? They have known nothing but their own surroundings and cannot conceive of anything different.”

What happens now? If President Bush settles accounts with Saddam Hussein under present conditions, the Arab world (and much of the rest of the world) will view his action as illegitimate and unreasonable, thanks to the cupidity of Blix and the European diplomatic corps. If America stands down, or delays indefinitely, the center will not hold, and we will slouch towards Gomorrah.

Backing off and leaving the field to Saddam, to be sure, remains highly improbable. Like the German General Staff in 1914, who urged an attack on Russia before it finished its rail network, Washington will act now rather than wait for a second North Korea to emerge. Before long, however, Bush may find himself in the unenviable company of Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, who is conducting a prolonged war of attrition against the Chechnyans. Russia is used to such things. America is not. The consequences for American morale are unpredictable.

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