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Stubborn problems on the way to a war

You may be a strong believer in military intervention in Iraq. You might be convinced that Saddam Hussein will never cooperate with weapons inspectors and is committed to playing a giant shell game across his country's 168,000 square miles. And you may be sure that the people of Iraq would be much better off when their dictatorial leader is forced out.

Still, these last few weeks probably have given you some pause.

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The Bush administration has gone back and forth on the need for a second UN resolution advocating force. It now sits in the pro-resolution camp, but how to phrase that resolution will be tricky. Meanwhile, Turkey has suddenly realized its real estate value is rising and has decided to relist its property at a slightly increased price. There's only one bidder, but he seems hooked. And last week it was reported the Bush administration is planning to send an American civilian to run Iraq's provisional government. The candidates for this position are diplomats or former governors. What utility infielders are to baseball, former governors are to the White House. You can never have too many of them; they're the fallback position for any and all holes that open.

Of course, one could argue that a lot of these problems couldn't be avoided. Aside from the governmental changes in Turkey, that country is still upset about economic hardship it suffered after the Gulf War in 1991 and was bound to up its price. Somebody has to lead in Iraq after the war, why not John Engler, who ran Michigan for 12 years? And the UN is in large part being held up by the French, who are, after all, French - eager as ever to point out problems, except when it involves themselves.

But the difficulties with our Iraq policy didn't appear overnight. In truth, the administration's problems go back to the first two years of its term. From the beginning, President Bush made it clear that he'd do whatever he wanted, regardless of what the world community thought.

When the Bush White House ignored the Kyoto global warming treaty, it didn't just take a pass on it, it turned its back on the world and offered no legitimate alternative. When the Bush team announced it was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, it didn't gauge international opinion or even discuss the move with allies.

At the time, the White House figured it could go it alone. The world was a different place then. But Bush, who is a champion of folksy maxims (or at least close approximations of them), should know that what comes around goes around. If you spend a few years ignoring your friends, you shouldn't expect them to rush to your aid when you need them.

And make no mistake, we need them now. Even those who support "regime change" have to acknowledge we're talking about something new and different. We're considering a preemptive strike against a sovereign nation. This isn't the kind of thing a country should do on its own. Going it alone threatens to do more harm to the US's already shaky international image. It has already had its effects.

Turkey's sudden interest in cashing in on the situation probably has as much to do with the knowledge that the international community isn't behind the US as it does with money. Turkey knows there is no stigma to holding up the US for a couple extra billion while protesters are marching and the UN questions what the US is doing.

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Similarly, the administration's plans for a "provisional government" after Hussein look suspiciously like its plans for filling the slot of, say, Homeland Security chief because the president knows we may go into Iraq without UN backing. What qualifications does a former governor have for the job of running a country that will probably be war-ravaged and starving? Most likely not many.

But we don't want a US representative wearing a uniform with stars on his shoulders. It might send the wrong message. And because there is much work to be done on the next Iraqi government (this shouldn't be a US-dominated exercise if it is going to have world respect) this person, whoever it is, may be there for a while.

This doesn't mean that our allies are blameless. NATO's reluctance to defend Turkey was the low point of this affair. But when France and Germany say they aren't sure they want to support us, the best response probably isn't to say we don't care because they're "old Europe" as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did.

The real question on Iraq is how imminent is the threat it poses? Nuclear weapons are frightening and there is little doubt Hussein wants them, but there has been little proof that he is close to getting them. And since there is little doubt that Iraqi officials will not comply with weapons inspections, as they haven't in the past, why not let them continue until they fail? At that point, even the world's biggest doubters will be hard-pressed to argue that Iraq is forthcoming. Turkey may be more receptive. And the former governors? The administration will find something for them to do.