IN APRIL 1954, President Eisenhower told the French he would launch air strikes against Vietnamese communist troops surrounding French forces at Dienbienphu only if two conditions were met: that U.S. intervention had to be part of a strong international coalition, and that Congress had to support the action.
Ike may have set tough conditions in the correct expectation that they would not be met. He understood that a president does not jump into a black hole without extensive international backing and a unified nation. Ike was following an essential rule of politics and good sense when a decision concerns lives and enormous costs -- and saying it depends.
It is not clear that President Bush understands this. He is content merely to recite the reasons for using force against a tyrant like Saddam Hussein: his record of brutal aggression, his use of chemical weapons and pursuit of nuclear weapons and his fist thrust against the oil thorax of the world's economy. And he is right on the fundamental issue: If war is not justifiable here, then where?
But to grant that a war against Iraq would be just does not justify actually going to war. Even just wars must be measured by their costs and consequences. It depends.
In the first instance, it depends on the alternatives. The only realistic one is economic sanctions. But its advocates cannot convincingly show that Iraq will crack before the alliance crumbles; its opponents cannot make the opposite case persuasively. We're all guessing -- George Mitchell, George Bush, you, me.
To me, the argument unfortunately turns on one critical factor: the 1992 presidential election. Sanctions advocates concede that the squeeze will take at least one year to approach full effect.
But waiting one year really means delaying two years, since Saddam Hussein will use the explosive mix of international crisis and presidential politics to handcuff George Bush militarily the way Hanoi stymied Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Ayatollah Khomeini neutered Jimmy Carter in 1980.
By 1992 Bush will no longer be able to credibly threaten employing force. With the threat to Saddam Hussein's regime removed, some of our allies will have to snuggle up to their entrenched neighbor as before.
Yet even with these defects, sanctions cannot be dismissed without looking at the costs and risks of war.
To begin with, as Ike knew in 1954, war should depend on a far larger commitment by our allies of troops and money. The present distribution of risks and pain is outrageously unfair.
Bush cannot allow the Saudis to make a windfall oil profit of about $4 billion monthly while we defend them, their unlikely denials of this notwithstanding. Nor should we have forgiven the $7 billion Egyptian debt in return for some 25,000 troops. Japan, Germany and France ought to be ashamed of their efforts; and they are not ashamed.
What's more, the Saudis, French and Egyptians have to participate in all military operations, especially the bombing of Iraq. A reckoning will come for scorching that country, and America and Britain cannot be left alone to absorb the hatred.
Saying yes to war should also depend on Bush's holding down casualties. The Pentagon insists on massive land, sea and air attacks. But it is not clear why offensive action can't be limited to air attacks, and ground action restricted to defense.
Given the open desert terrain, air power should be able to sever resupply of Iraqi troops in Kuwait and starve them out. To temper Arab hostility later, Washington must not target Iraqi civilians.
In addition, Bush, like Ike, should seek the blessing of Congress. More than 1 million armed personnel with the most modern weapons will be poised to do battle. This is not a police action like Panama or Grenada; it could become a mini-world war.
At worst, Congress would say not now, continue sanctions. This would be damaging, but not as bad as making war without Congress. My guess, however, is that if Congress were reassured about costs and consequences, it would give Bush as much authority to fight as the U.N. has.
He would thus gain what he and his aides fear he lacks most -- credibility with Saddam Hussein. A declaration of war, or its equivalent, is the best way to shock Iraq into submission without fighting, and if shock should fail, to fight.
Leslie H. Gelb is foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. He replaces Flora Lewis, who retired Dec. 31.