THE Bush administration is engaged in a scare-of-the-week campaign to drum up support for military action in the Gulf. The American public has been told variously that force may be necessary to stop aggression by a new Hitler, rescue Western hostages, and protect ``jobs'' (a euphemism for oil). But according to polls the public nonetheless is growing increasingly alarmed by the war tom-toms. So now the administration is focusing on nuclear weapons as a reason to end the Gulf crisis quickly. Why? Perhaps because 54 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll said that preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons would be reason enough for military action against Iraq.
It is indeed a matter of grave international concern that Saddam is sparing no cost or effort to develop nuclear weapons. But the administration's emphasis on the bomb is a cry of ``Wolf!'' that could actually dilute long-term attention to the Iraqi nuclear threat.
There is almost no credible evidence that Iraq can develop even a crude nuclear device within a year, as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft asserted last weekend. But that time frame jibes neatly with the administration's military timetable, and counters arguments that the embargo against Iraq should be given at least a year to bite.
It would be tragic if the administration's poll-driven gambit were to discredit the genuinely alarming intelligence about Iraq's determined march toward building deliverable nuclear warheads. Iraq has had marked success in acquiring the sophisticated technology to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium.
According to the best estimates, within several years Iraq may develop a nuclear device that could be detonated by terrorists; and in five to 10 years might have warheads that could be delivered on missiles or by aircraft.
Any spread of nuclear weapons (Israel, India, Pakistan) is worrisome. It is especially so in the case of Iraq, given Saddam's willingness, demonstrated in gas attacks on Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians, to employ weapons of mass destruction. Any solution to the Gulf crisis should include the elimination of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program and verifiable safeguards against its resurrection through tougher international inspections.
It may be, as some assert, that Saddam will never voluntarily abandon his nuclear program, and that ultimately force will be required to end it. Such a goal, however, does not require military action by next February or March, as the administration appears to have penciled in.