NEW YORK — AN IRAQI Shiite who has devoted his life to opposing Saddam Hussein visited me on Monday. "I know what you would not do," he said over bagels and coffee. "You would not intervene with military force in my country's civil war. I disagree, yet I understand. But what do you think the United States should do" to stop the killing of Shiites and Kurds, short of such intervention? His distinction is important. I still believe that the worst thing for Americans and Iraqis is for the United States to be drawn into the tribal and religious warfare there. But the second-worst thing would be to do nothing at all.
President Bush, in his zeal to avoid the prime sin of military intervention, is committing the second sin of almost total passivity.
Passivity dangerously and erroneously signals a willingness to live with Saddam Hussein. It also suggests a cynical indifference toward Kurds and others after having incited their rebellion.
At a minimum, Bush should enforce the strictest interpretation of the cease-fire agreement with Baghdad. That means shooting down Iraqi aircraft and helicopters. The loophole that allows the use of helicopters for administrative purposes has become a general license. Bush promised to destroy armed helicopters, and he should keep that promise.
As for destroying Iraqi tanks and artillery, that leads into the civil war quagmire. It goes well beyond the U.N. mandate and would embroil American forces directly in ground combat.
There should be no illusion, however, that firing on Iraqi helicopters will level the battlefield between Baghdad and the rebels. Iraq's forces vastly outnumber and outgun the rebels. But strong action in the air would send a critical signal to the Iraqi military.
It would remind them that everything will be harder if Saddam stays in power. That signal has grown far too faint. Iraqi military leaders could read faintness as a change in Washington's course, as a new policy that only Saddam can keep Iraq whole.
The nightmare of Lebanonization has to be avoided. But Bush and his coalition partners have carried this credo too far -- to the point of almost dropping the anti-Saddam ball. The Arab League compounded the signaling error last weekend by letting Saddam's government participate in its Cairo meeting.
There is another allied signal to Iraqi military leaders that needs strengthening: You will be held responsible for your brutality. Let them worry about what that may mean in personal accountability and future economic hardships.
The administration's failure to warn Iraq is shocking. The State Department practically achieves rhetorical orgasms of condemnation every time Israel deports Palestinian terrorists. It rarely condemns the killings of Kurds and Shiites.
Silence fills the halls of the U.N. The Security Council surprised itself by authorizing war against Iraq. It surprises few today by returning to form and scampering away from all responsibility for postwar Iraqi turmoil.
The U.N. does not mix into the internal affairs of its members. To be sure, such intervention would open a vault of troubles.
Yet the U.N. has intervened with peacekeeping forces in the Congo and Cyprus and proposes to do so now in Cambodia. True, it always has been at the invitation of the host government. But regional organizations have been known to act without an invitation. Several West African states sent forces recently to impose a cease-fire on warring Liberians.
My Iraqi visitor wants no similar involvement from Iraq's neighbors, whom he rightly fears. And he knows well the U.N.'s great reluctance to intervene. Still, he asks for some kind of help from the U.N., some notice, some aid for refugees, some words of warning to the butchers. The U.N. can and should provide all. Maybe Tuesday's French and Turkish initiative can produce some action.
Above all, he prays for U.S. military intervention. But unlike the Savonarolas of intervention who preach that American guns are the easy answer to civil war, he also realizes the magnitude of what he asks of Washington.
He smiles and offers one last story about a Kurd who said to a Palestinian: "I envy you. When you die, at least the Arabs, the United States and the United Nations complain."