WASHINGTON — Washington. Sweet Saddam Hussein has raised the next important issue for humankind. He says he has nuclear weapons and is prepared to use them.
Now, Mr. Hussein often lies. He occasionally tells the truth. The experts say this time he's lying, but not so long ago experts told us that you couldn't hit a missile with a missile.
This time the experts are probably right. If Mr. Hussein talks nuclear stuff to CNN again, they ought to run an MJID on the screen. (That's a Modified Joe Isuzu Disclaimer, and it should read ''he's probably lying . . .'')
Even assuming the experts are right, we are forced, with sweaty palms, to think about the spread of nuclear weapons.
What would the Saudis have done if a nuclearized Saddam Hussein said ''Do not allow foreign troops on your soil.'' Before responding, the Saudis would consider what Riyadh would look like after a mushroom cloud. The Egyptians would have to consider life without Cairo.
The Israelis already have nuclear weapons. Would Mr. Hussein nuke Israel? Would Israel strike Iraq first?
Suppose Mr. Hussein told the English that there were ''nuclear suitcases'' in London, and they would be detonated if the English got involved. Suppose he announced that there were suitcases in unnamed American cities.
In recent months we have talked about ''weapons of mass destruction'' as if they were all the same. They are not. Chemical and biological weapons are terrible -- but apparently non-apocalyptic. Nuclear weapons can be country-busters and world-shakers.
We have lived with nuclear weapons since 1945. It was so rational. America needed the bomb because Hitler was working on it. The Soviets needed it because America had it.
The English and French then needed an independent deterrent. So did the Chinese. The Indians needed it because of the Chinese.
The Israelis felt threatened by Arabs. The Pakistanis feel threatened by Indians. The South Africans feel threatened by everybody.
Brazil and Argentina have done a nuclear minuet. (Who threatens Brazil?)
Muammar el Kadafi, of the great superpower of Libya, was in the market for nukes.
The Taiwanese were interested. The North Koreans want it. Can South Korea be far behind? (The Germans have often been quite pleasant about selling fuel and technology to underprivileged peoples.)
Our pal, the Shah of Iran, was interested. We did not discourage him. If he had proceeded further, his nukes would have been inherited by a man with the initials Ayatollah Khomeini.
It's getting serious. The nuclear club is getting larger. Now we have come within an ace of a nightmare, a nuclear maniac.
We are still arguing about ''the lessons of Vietnam.'' Let's not argue about one lesson of Iraq, which is at the root of a New World Order: We need a new Non-Proliferation Treaty, with teeth.
The current treaty, signed in 1968, hasn't stopped proliferation. Key aspects of its inspection provisions are run by bureaucratic fuddy-duddies of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. They go to the opera and don't even make the results of their inspections public.
A new Non-Proliferation Treaty is not a pleasant remedy. Nuclear countries will have to take an unprecedented step and tell non-nuclear countries that any move toward making nuclear weapons will yield total economic sanctions.
It means a ban on the production and export of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. ''The peaceful nuclear-energy industry can flourish using lower-grade uranium'' says Victor Gilinsky, a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But it probably means more regulation.
It will be unfair to some threatened nations. Their safety may have to be guaranteed.
If it all sounds like a step toward world government, so be it. It is complicated. Luckily, we have experts to figure it out. It's not too late, probably.
Ben Wattenberg, of the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''