Why be in a hurry to war?

The most urgent question regarding Iraq is still open: Why is Washington in such a hurry to open the road to war? The Bush administration has produced none of the proof it claims to have of clear and present danger.

Real evidence that President Saddam Hussein has chemical, biological, or nuclear arms and the missiles to carry them long-range would unite the international community as in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait. Instead, doubt is universal. Just about everyone, it seems, is out of step but Mr. Bush.

There is no question that Mr. Hussein longs for the arsenal to annex Kuwait, destroy Israel, dominate the Arabian peninsula with its oil, and do what harm he can to the United States. But, however evil his intentions, it is facts that count. No one asserts that he has nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it has destroyed the infrastructure of Hussein's nuclear program. A new one would take years to build.

Chemical and biological weapons, on the other hand, as well as missiles with a range beyond the permissible 93 miles (150 km), could be squirreled away. UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has testified that Hussein is, in fact, lying and scheming although hard proof hasn't been found. This raises the immediate issue of whether this should be dealt with by inspection or by war.

Proactive inspection is a strong deterrent. Finding a flagrant breach of the UN Security Council's resolutions would justify armed intervention. Another deterrent, of course, is the certainty that the use, or the clear positioning of these weapons for imminent use, would bring swift, devastating preemptive attack. Then the question would be whether the riposte was an international effort or by the US alone.

Smuggling has financed Hussein all these years, sneaking out oil with the connivance of neighbors and bringing in military contraband as well as dual-use materials. The trade sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN have been shockingly violated. Mr. Blix testified that over time, and as late as last December, Iraq illegally imported 380 rocket engines for use in a missile that had a forbidden range. Governments and their businessmen exporters must be held responsible.

Washington apparently feels that a shortcut solution to these problems would be to invade Iraq - alone, if necessary. Most other nations want to give the inspectors more time, and the UN has set no time limit for inspections. They could go on as long as necessary to reach a conclusion.

Should Washington postpone hostilities it would lose nothing. The UN office that carefully controls the sale of most of Iraq's oil in payment for food and humanitarian supplies for the hard-pressed Iraqi people would remain in place. All or most of the cost would continue to be borne by Iraq. Diminished smuggling would cut Hussein's illicit source of money with which he pays for his cronies' compliance and his multiple security agencies. Without them and his weapons of mass destruction he's just another bum. Chances of being overthrown would grow.

The US would gain dramatically if it called off its war. Rejoicing would resound on Main Street and Wall Street, and in markets around the world. The respect of its allies and friends, which was fading as Washington's rhetoric grew more bellicose, would be restored. The act would neutralize the pernicious propaganda that the true American plan was to seize Iraq's oil. Some US troops would remain in the Gulf for a while, for safety's sake. Precious American and Iraqi lives would be saved - and perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars. By no means least, this denouement would spare the US the burden of governing a fractious, poverty-stricken Iraq for the next 10 years. Washington would be free to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian war, which poisons its relations with the Muslim world.

It's time to turn toward more fully leading the now more willing coalition against Al Qaeda and international terrorism.

Richard C. Hottelet is a former correspondent for CBS.

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