Debate Near the Brink

THE impulse for war with Iraq, which has begun to seem irresistible, is being checked somewhat by members of Congress. The White House may be doubling the number of troops in Saudi Arabia. But what Republicans Richard Lugar and Bob Dole, and Democrats George Mitchell and Sam Nunn, correctly sense is that the American people are not yet prepared for the consequences of an all-out war in the Gulf. Nor does the public fully understand why, or whether, a war is needed now. What about sanctions or diplomacy? Public support for a major overseas conflict is crucial. That was a painful lesson of Vietnam.

A special session of Congress to discuss warmaking in the Gulf - if carried out in a serious, bipartisan spirit - might be productive. It might prod the White House to make the case better for an imminent conflict. This is needed. The stakes are too high for the White House to unilaterally risk a splintering of the international coalition, US public opinion, and Arab allies in the region, in order to maintain the rather flat war rationale given so far. A war decision needs a depth dimension that so far is missing. Hostages, oil, and Saddam Hussein's brutal aggression require a serious US response. Whether they yet require an incendiary war in the Mideast is another matter.

Nor should the US be put in a position from which war is inevitable. The rationale that the US must attack because it has sent a half million people to the Gulf and time is running out is banal. The US should not attack because it made hasty deployment decisions and has no other choice. If a policy of troop rotation keeps a peace option open, it should be adopted.

The US is quickly finding itself in a double bind: Go to war and lose one's allies. Or don't go to war and incur the degrace of failed objectives.

A middle way needs to be found. A diplomatic effort at least as intense as war itself must commence. Such an effort will help establish public support for war should it fail.

White House war talk may spur action by allies, the Arab states, the UN. But there must be a choice. Congress has the authority to help make that choice.

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