Crossing a Warfare Threshold

Americans are wisely asking the "why" about starting a war with Iraq. And even "What happens in Iraq after the war?"

But they'd also be wise to ask this: "How should a war in Iraq be waged?"

The Pentagon remains understandably tight-lipped about its plans, as US forces are nearly in place to start fighting in February for "regime change" in Baghdad.

But Americans cannot assume this war, if it happens at all, will be like the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, when high-tech weapons weren't as precise as today's; or like the 2001 Afghanistan War, where much of the effort to topple the Taliban relied on proxy Afghan forces and CIA operatives (some on horseback) guiding missile attacks.

The "Iraq War" of 2003 could entail the use of some military actions on all sides that Americans might come to regret, even if US casualties are low, and even if Saddam Hussein and his weapons are eliminated.

Mr. Hussein says a US war would be "suicide," a subtle threat that he could launch chemical or biological warheads - not only at US forces but perhaps Israel, which may in turn retaliate with a nuclear attack.

Last year, President Bush set a new US policy to use "all" options to prevent a nation from using such weapons. Does that mean he's ready to use small nuclear bombs to destroy Iraqi weapons hidden in hardened underground shelters? Some recent reports say yes.

If so, Mr. Bush would step over a moral threshold not crossed since 1945. He would signal to any nation claiming a threat to its people that it, too, can justify a preemptive nuclear attack. He could launch a global nuclear arms race.

Political pressure is rising for a short, low-casualty war. Bush must go beyond his closed council of advisers and let Congress decide if the methods of this war are worth altering the very nature of warfare. Some costs of war - for future generations - may be too high to bear.

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