Bush and Iraq: time is of the essence

I'm recalling that angry great debate that engulfed this nation over whether we should go to war against Nazi Germany. What we have now over our possible attack on Iraq is not really a great debate over whether this should come about. Instead, the focus of a narrower discussion is on how and when this move against Saddam Hussein should take place.

A few of our leaders appear to believe there has been insufficient provocation from Mr. Hussein for us to attack him. But what we're mainly hearing is cautionary advice to President Bush before he takes on Iraq.

For one thing, congressional leaders want the president to consult with them – and get Congress's approval – before he leads the nation into the fray.

Two leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – Joe Biden and Dick Lugar – in a column in The New York Times call for this consultation with Congress and then point out that one way not to move quickly against Hussein could be "continuing the containment strategy, coupled with a tough weapons-inspection program."

Then they shoot down this approach – or any approach involving time devoted to long discussion and debate – when they add: "But it raises the risk that Mr. Hussein will play cat-and-mouse with inspectors while building more weapons and selling them to those who would use them against us."

Then come words that, it appears, could well be the rationale for what seems to be Mr. Bush's intention to take quick action against Iraq: "If we wait for the danger to become clear and present, it may be too late...."

I believe that even if the president hasn't made a final decision on moving against Iraq – he says that he hasn't – he is close to it.

Those two plans for attacking Iraq that leaked out from the Pentagon do, indeed, reveal Bush's intentions. The timing of the attack? Media people I talk to say, "The first of the year."

That doesn't mean Bush won't consult with Congress before he takes action. But that consultation may well be simply informing the leaders of Congress just before he makes his first military move. He might do it that way to conceal a surprise attack.

Those leaders who want a public weighing of whether the US should go to war with Iraq can point to polls that indicate that without more proof that Hussein is linked with Al Qaeda or is building a nuclear bomb – or both – much of the public is uncertain about what should be done.

But polls also show the public is firmly behind Bush in his war against terrorists. And I think Americans generally will line up behind the president if he starts an offensive against Iraq – whether or not Bush provides any more of an explanation other than that Hussein is a terrorist who already has bacterial and chemical weapons with which he could terrorize his neighbors and, indeed, the world, and that Hussein has given us ample reason to believe he is building an atomic weapon by his refusal to let us inspect what he is doing.

I believe Congress, too, will support Bush in a war against Iraq – with or without a long national discussion and with or without a preattack congressional endorsement.

Bush won't have all the allies his father had in the Gulf War – at least, not at the start. But other countries will quickly jump behind him if he launches a military campaign that appears on the path to victory.

In summary: I believe this president thinks there is no time to fiddle around with Hussein – that Hussein must be eliminated quickly lest he start to use his terrible weapons to terrorize other countries. (He has already used poison gas against Iran and the Iraqi Kurds.)

The president was said, by those close to Bush and his planning, to have been on the verge of taking on Iraq right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Now he seems ready – public debate or not.

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