WE AMERICANS find ourselves in the extraordinary position of witnessing our government's slow but certain movement toward a major war with Iraq.
Such open maneuvering, with clear statements of intention from the Bush administration, the leaking of war plans from the Pentagon, and the acquiescence of Congress, could not have happened when US power was balanced, and therefore checked, by the Soviet Union, nor when that power was mitigated by Washington's regard for world opinion. Now the only conceivable check on the sole superpower is the will of its own people, manifest through politics, which is why we must urgently take up the subject.
It can be agreed that Saddam Hussein is a danger to his neighbors, an enemy to his own people, and a threat to world peace. But on this page last Saturday the former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter, expressed grave skepticism about the Bush contention that Hussein so threatens the United States with weapons of mass destruction that war is justified.
Ritter proposed congressional hearings to ''ask the Bush administration tough questions'' about its purposes. Here are some questions that occur to me:
Having lived with Hussein as a mortal enemy for more than a decade, is the urgency of replacing him now a result less of real evidence of increased threat than of the ''us versus them'' mind-set that drives the war on terrorism? Is the cause of war something Hussein is doing, or is it something we are imagining?
Does the bellicosity of the Bush administration eliminate the alternatives to war? For example, ''containment and deterrence,'' which worked against the Soviet Union and have so far worked against Hussein, depend on the cooperation of other nations. Is Bush's chest-thumping war talk, even short of actual invasion, destroying that cooperation?
When the US goal shifts from one of moderating Hussein's behavior to the openly expressed purpose of ''regime change,'' what does Hussein have to lose? And when Hussein knows an invading US force is surely coming, does he not have to ''use or lose'' whatever weapons he has? Isn't Washington forcing him to respond with his worst?
What effect would a major American war against Iraq have on the broader conflict between Islam and the West? If Al Qaeda grew out of the humiliations attached to the Gulf War, what would grow out of the new humiliation of a massive US imposition on Iraq, including the necessity of a long-term occupation by the United States?
What is the relationship between the urgent American project in Iraq and the staggering lack of American interest in the worsening Israeli-Palestinian crisis? Is Bush using the former problem as an excuse to avoid grappling with the latter one? How is it in Israel's interest to invite Hussein to unleash his Scuds again? And what is the hope for improved US-Arab relations so long as Palestinians are left in misery?
What does it say about the United States that we are about to become a ''first-strike'' nation? Abandoning multilateralism, have we abandoned diplomacy as well? Is war no longer a last resort, taken in self-defense, but a routine method of getting our way, since no one can stop us? Has the time come for us to reverse the National Security Act of 1947 and go back to calling the ''Defense Department'' the ''War Department?''
Would a war against Iraq, with its risk of inflaming the ''clash of civilizations'' and its likely weakening of ties between the United States and our allies, make our nation more vulnerable to terrorist attacks? If the only real way to track down Al Qaeda and prevent future attacks is through the very multilateralism that the Bush war would weaken, isn't Bush still enacting the script written by Osama bin Laden?
What does a longer view of warmaking tell us? Recalling that Hussein began as an American client, as bin Laden did, when we were fighting other wars, isn't he an argument for finally breaking with the myth that war solves more problems than it creates? If we came to that conclusion, wouldn't other forceful ways of resisting Hussein's tyranny emerge? And in the long run, who is to say they would not be far more effective?
The obvious difference between Iraq and the United States is that this nation is a democracy. That means that we US citizens are responsible for the behavior of George W. Bush in ways that the people of Iraq are not responsible for Saddam Hussein. There is good reason to believe that Bush, in his highly personal, irrational, and thoroughly Manichaean campaign against Hussein, has set the very world on a course toward disaster. No one can change that course but us.