A last resort?

October 06, 2002

FORTY-EIGHT HOURS. That's all the warning the American people will get before their sons and daughters go off to war. By then, it will be too late to ask why, too late to seriously question the reason for President Bush's all-consuming quest to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, too late to stop a military campaign of bombs and battle troops that may provoke the very chemical weapons attack the president fears.

But it's already too late. Or so it appears as Democrats and Republicans in Congress march in lockstep with the president on the path to war. A vote on a congressional resolution authorizing a unilateral military strike against Iraq has not yet been taken, but the deal has been cut.

In exchange for a mandate for war, Mr. Bush agreed to alert Congress within 48 hours of his decision that the security of the United States could no longer be ensured through diplomacy.

Not much of a compromise, considering that the critical questions about engaging in this conflict have not been answered. Not for congressional leaders and not for the public. The president's sense of urgency remains unexplained. His reasons for a strike too far-ranging. His postwar plans for Iraq without Saddam Hussein unknown.

That Mr. Hussein is a maniacal despot with a proclivity for amassing weapons of mass destruction is not in dispute. That he has deceived international weapons inspectors and operated without oversight for four years is not contested. That he has violated a decade's worth of United Nations resolutions including basic human-rights laws remains unchallenged.

But these facts alone don't warrant abandoning nearly a century's worth of constructive containment for a unilateral strategic strike that is unprovoked. Especially when the stakes are so high. This war won't be confined to air strikes and smart bombs. Three retired members of America's military elite have warned against going to war without allied support, which seems uncertain at this point.

One retired Marine general forecast a "nightmare scenario" of American ground troops embroiled in a guerrilla war with Iraqi Republican National Guardsmen in Baghdad. Are Americans ready for the prospect of their soldiers being exposed to chemical or biological weapons? And if Iraq lobs missiles into Israel and the Jewish state responds, as it has threatened to do, will this war engulf the entire region?

A hallmark of U.S. leadership on the world stage has been restraint in unleashing its military power. But with the Bush administration intent on using that power to disarm Mr. Hussein, a congressional resolution supporting the president should be drawn narrowly, not broadly.

The United States should not go to war because of Iraq's human-rights abuses, its confinement of prisoners of war or its debt to Kuwait. Under the compromise reached in Congress and the proposed U.N. resolution promoted by the United States, a war against Iraq could be initiated for any of those reasons.

If the United States must go to war, the conflict should be confined to unmasking Mr. Hussein's duplicity and his deadly arsenal. The United Nations is preparing to send a new team of weapons inspectors into Iraq. The inspectors won't have unfettered access -- the Iraqi president's lavish palaces are exempt from surprise visits under a previous U.N. agreement.

The Bush administration is right to press for stringent conditions on the inspections -- Iraq's previous lies and deceptions are well-documented.

A strict inspections regime could go a long way toward stripping Iraq of its facade of compliance. If the past is indeed prelude, it will be only a matter of time before the Iraqi dictator interferes with the inspectors' work. The United Nations, if wary now, would then be on firm ground to act.

The Bush administration's drive to oust Mr. Hussein may be rooted in the vulnerability America feels since the attacks of Sept. 11. The threat he poses may have gained more credence in these uncertain times. Mr. Bush has acknowledged in recent days "the awful nature of war." He has characterized the military option as "my last choice, not my first." Americans have little choice but to take him at his word.

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