WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the Bush administration's most comprehensive case for war against Iraq yesterday, warning that the world faces grave danger if it stands by while Saddam Hussein develops nuclear weapons.
"The risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action," Cheney said in a speech in Nashville, Tenn. He cautioned against "wishful thinking or willful blindness" about the threat posed by the Iraqi dictator.
Cheney's address to a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars was an effort to counter a flurry of criticism - from leading Republicans as well as Democrats - that the administration has not made a compelling case for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.
Administration spokesmen have said repeatedly that President Bush has not decided whether to launch military action to oust Hussein. Bush said last week that he would be deliberate in his decision. And despite the urgency of his tone, Cheney gave no hint yesterday that military action is imminent.
Yet even as he stressed that Bush would "consider all possible options," the vice president offered a forceful and detailed justification for waging war.
Countering objections that a military strike could destabilize the region, Cheney said the removal of Hussein would bolster the war against terrorism, strengthen moderate Arab states and improve the chances of peace in the Middle East.
Many of the points Cheney made have been articulated by others. But his speech tied together all of the arguments and presented the administration's broadest case so far for war against Iraq.
"There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said. "There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."
Even as Bush and Cheney have been raising the prospect of war to oust Hussein, many on Capitol Hill have demanded that the Bush administration seek Congress' approval for any such action.
Administration lawyers say that congressional authorization is not legally required, though others say it would be politically necessary.
In his speech, Cheney said Bush had instructed his national security team to cooperate in congressional hearings starting next month. And Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said yesterday that the president "will make the decision about a congressional vote on more than legal factors alone."
Cheney, the secretary of defense when the United States fought to oust Iraq from Kuwait 11 years ago, asserted that intelligence agencies and United Nations arms inspectors had in the past underestimated Hussein's ability to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. If the United States waits for more compelling proof of his ability to use such weapons, Cheney said, it would become harder to mobilize a coalition against Hussein.
"Many of those who now argue that we should act only if he gets a nuclear weapon would then turn around and say that we cannot act because he has a nuclear weapon," Cheney said.
The result, he said, "could have devastating consequences for many countries, including our own."
The vice president noted with approval an argument made recently by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who suggested that Iraq's development of advanced weaponry, its refusal to allow U.N. inspectors to monitor its weapons programs and its general hostility had produced "an imperative for pre-emptive action."
The United States, Cheney said, "will not simply look away, hope for the best and leave the matter for some future administration to resolve."
The speech came amid a growing debate on Capitol Hill and among present and former administration officials over the wisdom of going to war against Iraq. Opponents, including Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the president's father, have argued that a war now would draw no international support and would undermine the war against terrorism.
Critics also say the United States lacks evidence that Iraq is close to developing a nuclear weapon and contend that Hussein would be unlikely to share his chemical and biological weapons with terrorist groups.
Britain, the one European ally that is considered likely to aid a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, has said that the top international priority should be the return of the U.N. weapons inspectors whom Hussein barred from Iraq in 1998.
But Cheney, summarizing the view of administration skeptics, said that a return of inspectors "would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions."
"On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow back in his box," Cheney said. "Nothing in the last dozen years has stopped him.
"Many of us," the vice president said, "are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." He described the potential threat in almost apocalyptic terms.