The fear factor

October 09, 2002

ACKNOWLEDGING Americans' wariness about waging war on Iraq, President Bush set out Monday night to explain in straightforward but strong language the reasons the United States must act to disarm the regime of Saddam Hussein. A summation of arguments he has made before, the president's speech reiterated: the Iraqi dictator's disdain for and disregard of United Nations resolutions since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, his use of chemical and biological weapons on his people and his enemies, his hatred of the United States, and America's vulnerability since the Sept. 11 attacks.

To the question of why America must confront Iraq now, which has dogged the president's case for military action, Mr. Bush offered a chilling reply: "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Framed in that way, how could anyone object to a pre-emptive, unilateral strike against Iraq? But that's precisely the problem with Mr. Bush's case for attacking Iraq to remove Mr. Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.

It's the set-up for the ultimate "I told you so," should America refuse to take on Mr. Hussein and the country's worst fears be realized. In making the case against Mr. Hussein, the White House ignores just as important a duty: its responsibility to assess the cost of going to war for the nation and the world at large.

The possible exposure of American troops to the same poisons Mr. Hussein utilized against the Kurds in northern Iraq? An expansion of war in the region, with Israel as the likely target of Iraqi missiles? A destabilization of the world oil market? An escalation of anti-American fervor in the Muslim world?

No one disputes the fact that Mr. Hussein has proved to be a wily and ruthless dictator since an American-led coalition drove his troops from Kuwait 11 years ago. He has taken every opportunity to thwart the U.N. sanctions put in place to contain him and eliminate his cache of chemical and biological weapons. He has secretly sought ways to build a nuclear arsenal.

But that does not explain why the United States should unilaterally abandon a policy of containment rather than intensify it.

Mr. Bush could have delivered a similar speech before Sept. 11. The talk of war doesn't fall on deaf ears now. But the country's new sense of vulnerability can't relieve Mr. Bush of the responsibility of exploring every means possible to address the Iraqi peril without going to war. That's why we urge him to continue to press for a new U.N. resolution that delineates a tough, uncompromising weapons inspections program and the consequences for violating it.

President Bush sought to underscore his arguments for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq by quoting John F. Kennedy's views on the peril facing the nation during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The more appropriate analogy, as the late president's brother rightly pointed out, would have been Mr. Kennedy's restraint: He chose a blockade over an attack.

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