WASHINGTON — RARELY in history has the war option provided so much time and information for thorough public debate. The result has been a minimum of rancor and name-calling in favor of serious-minded discourse on the morality of going to war in the Persian Gulf.
When Congress finally voted on Saturday, it supported President Bush's position, but with much the same share of doubt and dissent that is reflected in public opinion surveys. Much of the debate has followed the traditional moral framework for weighing ``just'' wars.
President Bush's own rationale has shifted, at least in emphasis, toward moral arguments. In the first few days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the president spoke of the threat Saddam Hussein represented to the ``American way of life.'' He was referring to the threat, in particular, to the American standard of living should Iraq seize control of Saudi oil fields as well as Kuwait's.
Weeks later, Secretary of State James Baker III made an even more direct appeal to the economic self-interest of Americans when he said the Gulf confrontation was about protecting jobs.
By the time Mr. Bush made a televised address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 11, he was no longer making pocketbook appeals. His case was for fighting to protect a new, more cooperative and harmonious, world order against a reckless aggressor.
The new world order that Bush sees at stake here is one under which the international community can unite massively to put down a rogue aggressor. During the cold war, the superpowers suppressed regional conflicts in their efforts to contain each other's sphere of influence.
Iraq has provided the first test of whether a post-cold war stability can be achieved on the basis of cooperation and international law. The character of Saddam Hussein makes this a stark test, with few moral ambiguities.
One concern is certainly stopping Saddam Hussein himself. While few people believe he threatens the world on a Hitlerian scale, the lesson of Hitler was that he could have been stopped early, that appeasement led him on.
Concern over UN's role
Another concern is establishing the usefulness of the United Nations for collective security in the world. If the UN allows Iraq to escape with aggression, says John Gaddis, a diplomatic historian, it will go the way of the League of Nations after it failed to respond to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
Another, similar concern is setting an example showing that aggression doesn't pay in the post-cold war world. At root, the argument for risking the lives of American, Iraqi, and other soldiers in this confrontation is that it will save lives in the long run - as well as the sovereignty of nations.
Some people are skeptical that this is Bush's true motivation. Among the skeptics are those picketing the White House and disrupting the Senate debate with the slogan, ``No blood for oil,'' implying that the impending war is to keep the price or control of oil in friendly hands.
If the debate in Congress is any reflection of public opinion, however, then most Americans seem to see larger principles at stake. The main debate over American policy in the Gulf is not over ends but means - whether all peaceful means have been exhausted. A large minority in Congress wants much more time for economic sanctions or diplomacy to persuade Saddam to leave Kuwait.
The debate has - mostly unconsciously - probed for the criteria of the ``just war'' tradition, a moral theory for when war is just that has evolved out of Christian tradition. The seven elements of a just war are closely modeled in the UN Charter and most international law, according to David Little, senior scholar at the United States Institute for Peace.
One element, the one most at issue in American Gulf policy, is that war be used only as a last resort. The leadership in both the House and Senate, for example, holds that economic sanctions against Iraq offer the hope that war will not be necessary. The president holds that sanctions will never force Iraq out of Kuwait.
Sanctions not enough
One senior White House official explains that the administration never believed sanctions would starve Saddam out of Kuwait, only that they would convince him of world solidarity against him. It has not worked, the official says.
Another element of the just war that is under dispute is that the costs of going to war are proportionate to the benefits. A show of American force against an Arab regime - even an unpopular one - risks setting off dangerous instabilities in a volatile region. Yet so does a moral victory for Saddam.
German, Japanese role
Proportionality is at issue in another way as well. The nations most dependent on Kuwaiti oil, Germany and Japan, are contributing little money and no military forces to the Gulf coalition. The Saudis have promised to pay half the cost of the war effort, but the forces are at least 70 percent American.
The just war also requires a legitimate public declaration of war, to prevent private or illicit uses of war. Bush now has authorization from the UN and the Congress to use force to free Kuwait. If he had acted without the support of Congress, he would have strengthened the suspicion of some that his motives are partly personal - to win against Saddam and enhance his political prestige.
Dr. Little notes that the just war tradition is not the only moral framework for considering the use of force. One, nearly obsolete now, is the Holy War, or crusade. But the pacifist view that opposes war under any circumstances is growing, he says, and there is declining faith in war as a tool.