FOR THE past several months, the debate over Iraq has focused on the presumed inadequacies of the decade-long containment policy.
For Bush administration hawks, the notion of containing Saddam Hussein is not only naive but dangerously untenable given the Iraqi dictator's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
Advocates of containment, including America's staunchest allies, inexplicably retain faith in a policy of economic sanctions and arms inspections that offers only the flimsiest restraints on Iraq's nuclear ambitions.
The problem with this debate is its assumption that a containment regime is necessarily static and cannot be conditioned to meet evolving dangers. The answer to the Iraqi threat, even a Saddam Hussein with the bomb, is neither pre-emptive war nor the status quo, but a different type of containment.
The Bush administration's peculiar obsession with Mr. Hussein, and its proclaimed affinity for pre-emptive war, obscures the reality that America has faced dangerous tyrants before. For much of the Cold War, the United States confronted an aggressive Soviet empire imbued with an expansionist ideology. Washington negated the Soviet challenge by trip-wire deterrence, placing American forces on the frontiers of Europe to ensure that a Soviet attack would trigger an unacceptable U.S. retaliation.
Despite its overwhelming conventional and nuclear power, the logic of deterrence and the risks of escalation led successive Soviet leaders to conform to America's lines of containment.
Nor is the Soviet example unique. The American armada managed to easily contain Mao Tse-tung's aggressive designs against Taiwan. Both Mao and Stalin, two of history's most pernicious tyrants, appreciated the strategic disutility of nuclear weapons when confronted with expressed American commitment.
This model of trip-wire containment can similarly contain Iraq. Instead of waging unilateral war in contravention of international opinion, Washington can use the current crisis to craft a durable containment regime, buttressed by U.N. resolutions and multilateral forces. The task is to craft Security Council resolutions guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Iraq's most vulnerable and valuable neighbors, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
Following passage of such resolutions, the United States and its allies can dispatch a symbolic contingent of several thousand troops to Iraq's periphery, ensuring that if Mr. Hussein invades his neighbors he will have to kill U.S. troops and violate international treaties, leading to full-scale U.S. retaliation.
Indeed, such a containment policy is likely to garner active allied cooperation, as both European and Arab states would prefer to avert a destabilizing military conflict in the Middle East. Instead of a lonely invasion, trip-wire deterrence would ensure that America's lines in the sand enjoy international approbation and moral legitimacy.
The critical question remains whether nuclear weapons in Mr. Hussein's hands would alter the calculus of trip-wire containment. As the hawks continuously insist, Mr. Hussein is a serial aggressor who has twice invaded his neighbors and used chemical weapons against both the Kurds and Iranians. Mr. Hussein is a brutal, aggressive dictator, but his belligerence has always been calculated, even rational.
The awkward reality remains that, given fears of revolutionary Iran, Mr. Hussein was relatively assured that the Reagan administration and the Persian Gulf princes would countenance his methods of war against Iran, even when those methods transgressed international law. When such benevolence was withdrawn, as it was during the gulf war, Mr. Hussein's impressive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons remained in the warehouses. His history of aggression demonstrates that he is prone to use weapons of mass destruction only against those who cannot respond in kind.
Neither the Kurds nor the Iranians had the capacity for a type of retaliation that would imperil Mr. Hussein's survival, thus giving him free rein to engage in his deplorable conduct. A nuclear-armed Hussein will likely learn the lessons of other rapacious dictators, namely that atomic weapons are of limited diplomatic and strategic value when confronted with American determination and the likely retaliation from the world's most impressive military machine.
Even at such a late date, there is still an alternative to war. By granting a formal international commitment to Iraq's neighbors and deployment of U.S. forces to the front lines of Iraq, the Bush administration has an opportunity to deter Mr. Hussein's aggressive instincts.
The policy of trip-wire containment that successfully deterred far more powerful and reckless dictators during the Cold War can once more compel the reticence of yet another pernicious ruler with grandiose ambitions.
Ray Takeyh is a fellow in international security studies at Yale University.