Lonely Saber Rattling

If Iraq actually does hand over its unconventional weapons without a war, President Bush will have conducted the most convincing and expensive saber-rattling in history.

But the logic of rattling a stern and credible saber against a real foe has now run into the shifting moods of democracies.

Keeping Saddam Hussein and the world guessing on whether Mr. Bush will go it alone into battle has required poker-faced conviction by the president, a unified administration, support from Congress, a massive deployment of troops and weapons, and up to $1 billion a week from US taxpayers to keep those forces in the Middle East.

That's a costly and massive bluff - if all that buildup really is only a bluff.

But the threat of force without the will to use it isn't much of a threat. And Bush's willingness for a war with Iraq now faces a serious test of credibility.

This week, France, Germany, and other members of the UN Security Council indicated a strong unwillingness to approve a preemptive US strike even if UN inspectors find chemical or biological weapons, or a nuclear-weapons program.

Let the inspectors just keep on finding weapons, those nations plead, even if the US must maintain troops on the ready in a sort of "Sitzkrieg." They're saying, "Thanks for the credible bluff, Mr. President, now just hold the troops there and do it our way. And please, pick up the check."

Technically, Iraq is in breach of UN Resolution 1441 because, as chief inspector Hans Blix has stated, Iraq's report of its weapons program was false. And some empty warheads have been found.

But those are mere technicalities to countries fundamentally opposed to war no matter what Iraq possesses.

That about sums up the logic of events so far. Where this tense drama remains fluid is in how American public opinion has shifted, and how much the people in Europe and elsewhere don't see a threat of Iraqi weapons getting into the hands of globe-trotting terrorists.

After Al Qaeda killed more than 3,000 people on Sept. 11 2001, a majority of Americans put Mr. Hussein in the same terrorist camp as Osama bin Laden. Their concern over preventing another attack led them to back even risky measures such as a war on Iraq. Europe doesn't sympathize with that, and with its experience of wars, winces at backing this one.

But lately, a majority of Americans (58 percent, by a Washington Post/ABC poll) would like to see more evidence of Iraq's lies or weapons before going to war. While Bush's threat of war has been credible, his evidence for Iraq's threat hasn't won the day.

Bush may realize he must go to war soon, to maintain the credibility of his threat and to beat the summer heat, while counting on an American habit to rally behind the troops once a conflict starts, despite any doubts.

Now caught between a mostly unsupportive UN Security Council and declining support from Americans, the president is left with a very lonely, difficult decision.

He must be given credit for a strategy to safeguard the US by seeking a regime change in Iraq. But how much should he listen to a growing portion of Americans who have serious doubts, or allies who aren't allies when they think the US is crying wolf?

Bush wasn't elected to rule by polls. But he'd be foolish to launch war if support keeps dwindling away.

Solving this conundrum will depend on his ability to maintain and pay for the threat of force while persuading Americans - with evidence - that Iraq is a genuine, present danger.

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