Regime change” is a euphemism for the engineered overthrow of a government by any means. I agree it would be a good thing if Saddam Hussein were assassinated, but no matter how much the formulas are dinned into our ears, we should try to call things by their names. Thucydides in “The Peloponnesian War” is some help: “Accordingly the Athenians sailed to Samos with forty ships and set up a democracy, took hostages from the Samians, fifty boys and as many men, lodged them on Lemnos, and after leaving a garrison on the island returned home.” So there it is, regime change, “they set up a democracy” — self-interest and force and principle all wrapped together in a package. Thucydides saw what a chaos of unpredictable effects any war must bring in its train. War makes even the Athenians prefer democracy for selfish and unworthy reasons.

The Republican party is interested in keeping our minds on nothing but Iraq until the election. The Democratic party is interested in taking our minds off Iraq well before the election. So we have had a fast proposal of war and the promise of a fast debate. But the evils a war could set in motion are of graver importance than the fortunes of the rival parties. I support America using all its persuasive powers to back the United Nations in disarming Iraq. I oppose the unilateral aggression of preventive war, and if I were a member of Congress, I would vote against awarding the president the unlimited scope of action that he seeks in his Authorization for War. The phrases now under debate authorize both enforcement of the UN resolutions and protection of the “national security interests” of the United States as the president defines those interests. A positive vote would also empower the president to decide for himself whether diplomacy alone “is not likely to lead to enforcement” of the U.N. resolutions. This pair of calculated ambiguities gives too much power to one man. It is an open door through which he can walk with thousands of troops.

What picture of war has held this administration captive? They believe our adventure in violent regime change will go happily, without catastrophe or harrowing losses. Some American soldiers will die. A larger number of innocent Iraqis will certainly die, but not too many for us to endure. Saddam Hussein’s government will fall, a grateful populace will welcome the American conquerors, our inspectors or the UN inspectors, if we are still on good terms with the UN, will be shown the locations of all the sites in Iraq for the manufacture of dangerous weapons, and the materials will be promptly destroyed without accident. The other nations of the world, now so uncertain of our cause and so dismayed by our arrogance, will rally around the United States in our moment of success. A docile leadership will be set up in Iraq, and will pledge to hold free elections, and the elections will be held. Hostile nations in the region will undergo a gradual but soon overwhelming conversion to the methods and culture of Western democracy and the global market. Finally the war between Israel and insurgent Palestinians will stop as the ingredients appear for two democratic nations living side by side at peace.

All this may happen; it is not inconceivable. What is astonishing is the confidence of the president’s advisers — Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and others — that it just will happen, that this massive concatenation of lucky breaks really is a likely set of consequences. A different order of events is imaginable, which the American people are expected not to weigh in the balance. Suppose the United States prevails in battle but not all of the battle goes well. Not hundreds but many thousands of Iraqi civilians are killed by our bombs, some in circumstances that the world finds atrocious, and Baghdad becomes a scene of drawn-out fighting from street to street. One, or two, of the moderate Arab nations are shaken by mob actions precipitated by the war, and one, or two, are toppled, to be replaced by fanatical pan-Islamist regimes that openly support acts of terror against the United States. Israel moves to a policy of military supervision over the occupied lands with no visible termination. This, too, may happen.

Hidden somewhere behind the discussion of the war is a discussion we have not yet had. What kind of empire do we want to be? The Bush doctrine asserts that the United States will brook no rival or equal or threat to our preeminence in the use of irresistible force. This is a policy that previous empires have certainly pursued but that none before has professed. It embodies a stance that at once repels our friends among the advanced nations and intimidates our subordinates among the developing nations. We appear bent on becoming a magnificent power utterly without magnanimity. After the Second World War, the United States gave Europe the Marshall Plan and the energy and means to resist the tyranny of communism. Since the fall of communism in 1989, we have avoided even trying to practice in foreign affairs a generosity that would be commensurate with our greatness. The threat of a war against Iraq, with no ideas about the peace we hope will follow, is only the latest symptom of that evasion.

David Bromwich is the Bird White Housum Professor of English and a lecturer at the Law School.