WASHINGTON — Washington.
THIS MAY BE the first war that was ever nit-picked to death before it could start. Hawks are getting frustrated. Expect a lot of dark brooding soon about the decadence of American democracy in the face of evil. But the nit-pickins are pretty good.
Like his flags 'n' furloughs campaign for the presidency, George Bush's campaign for war against Iraq is mostly disingenuous. No doubt he sincerely wants this policy, just as he sincerely wanted to be president. And his real reasons for risking war are good. Trouble is, they are not sufficient. And his usual read-my-polls, issue-of-the-week techniques of persuasion seem especially hollow when there is blood at stake. A few examples:
* President Bush says that Iraq is quickly acquiring nuclear weapons. This is offered as a justification for war, and a reason for not procrastinating if Mr. Hussein fails to obey the United Nations resolution by January 15. But the U.N. resolution is about Kuwait and the hostages.
It says nothing about nuclear weapons. And Secretary of State Baker has virtually promised that there will be no war if Mr. Hussein obeys the resolution. If Mr. Hussein can avoid war without giving up his nukes, nukes cannot be a justification for going to war.
* Lately, Mr. Bush's emphasis has been on the catastrophic effect of higher oil prices. Developing countries, Eastern Europe, and the United States itself ''are being victimized by this dictator's rape of his neighbor.''
But it is Mr. Bush's threat of war, right or wrong -- not Mr. Hussein's invasion -- that is causing high oil prices. Those prices plummeted $4 a barrel in just a few hours on peace hopes after Mr. Bush announced that James Baker would meet with Mr. Hussein.
A promise to give the embargo a year would bring oil prices back to the low $20s. The high oil prices are a result of the Bush policy. They cannot justify it.
* Likewise, the hostages. Early on, Mr. Bush was admirably staunch about not letting hostages dictate American policy. Now invokes them. But Mr. Hussein only seized hostages to deter the threat of war. The surest way to free them would be to abandon that threat. Yes, to give up the war simply because of hostages would be craven and shortsighted. But the plight of the hostages cannot logically be invoked to justify the war, either.
* Then there is the bathos of the siege at the American embassy in Kuwait. This also is Mr. Bush's doing, not Mr. Hussein's. Those diplomats could leave at any time. The embassy is a useful symbol. But it adds nothing to Mr. Hussein's malevolence in wishing to absorb Kuwait that he also wishes to shut our embassy. And our wish to keep the embassy open adds nothing to the case for war to free Kuwait.
* The embargo. This was George Bush's idea, remember? Now he belittles it. He never thought it would work, he revealed December 4.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told a Senate committee that, ''Saddam Hussein's brutality . . . , his very tight control of that society, his ability to allocate resources for the military, their ability to produce their own food . . .'' all mean that sanctions can't work.
All these factors were as evident in August, when the sanctions were imposed, as they are now. Was the administration bluffing then, or is it bluffing now? Take your pick.
* Regarding the general awfulness of Saddam Hussein, the Hitler analogy, and so on. These increasingly lurid arias would be more convincing if they were accompanied by some slight acknowledgment that the administration was wrong to have been trying to make pals with this implacable madman-monster-killer-rapist as recently as August 1.
To be sure, there is disingenuousness on the other side of the Iraq debate, too. Most of it concerns the embargo. The essential question is whether reversing Mr. Hussein's conquest of Kuwait is worth the cost in blood. That question was getting a better airing three months ago than it is now. Now opponents of military action can hide behind the embargo. Let the embargo work, they say. Fine. But for how long? And what if it doesn't work? This one might, but most do not. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., says give it until next August 2. But he shouldn't get until August 2 to say what he'd do then.
If President Bush thought the embargo was a way to ease us toward war without a four-square debate, he was too clever. It has become a way for members of Congress to oppose the war he wants without taking responsibility for the consequences. And practically everyone now understands -- though the administration continues to deny it -- that Mr. Bush cannot go to war without congressional approval or a constitutional crisis.
The Constitution is about as clear as it can be on this subject. Anyone who thinks the president can launch a premeditated war halfway around the globe all by his lonesome should be stripped of his strict-constructionist epaulets. True, this kind of democratic control of war-making -- and the nit-picky debate in advance that goes with it -- represents a reversal of the general 20th century trend. But that is no bad thing. It might yet save George Bush from the trap he laid for himself when, in a moment of bravado, he said, ''This will not stand.''