The question of whether the United States should launch a unilateral invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq has spurred one of the most spirited foreign policy debates in recent memory. It's a classic hawks vs. doves argument and on this one, I'm a dove.

Go ahead, call me a wimp, but I think it would be a terrible mistake to initiate a preemptive strike against Iraq without majority support from our European and Middle Eastern allies and the American people. Because if we go it alone against Iraq, we risk repeating the errors that led to our Vietnam quagmire more than 25 years ago. We're still paying a price for an unpopular war that tore our country apart and we don't need a major distraction as we fight Al Qaeda terrorism around the world.

In two strongly-worded speeches to veterans' groups last week, Vice President Dick Cheney argued for a preemptive strike against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to prevent Saddam from engaging in nuclear blackmail. "Time is not on our side," Cheney said. "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network, or a murderous dictator ... constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action." And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told American troops that "it's less important to have unanimity than it is making the right decision and doing the right thing, even though at the outset it may seem lonesome."

For his part, Cheney added that those who disagree with the administration are engaging in "wishful thinking or willful blindness." But are they? Among those urging caution are three senior officials of the first Bush presidency: former Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. All three have urged President Bush to build an international consensus and to convince Congress and the American people of the need for an invasion of Iraq before launching a preemptive strike, and I agree. The president and his top advisers simply haven't yet made their case in a clear and convincing manner.

On Tuesday, in a meeting at his Texas ranch, President Bush unsuccessfully attempted to enlist longtime Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan in his campaign against Iraq, calling Saddam Hussein "a menace to the world." But Bandar waffled and a top Saudi foreign policy adviser, Adel el-Jubeir, said United Nations arms inspectors can control any threat posed by Iraq without firing a shot. "There is no country I know of supporting the use of force in Iraq at this time," he said. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who backed us during the Gulf War, warned that if the U.S. acts unilaterally in Iraq, no Arab ruler will be able "to curb popular sentiments," leading to "a state of disorder and chaos."

The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a questionable ally, at best. After all, 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis and the kingdom has been accused of funding terrorism throughout the Middle East, including Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli civilians. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote last week, "I think Dick Cheney had it right" when he said that our goal should be "a government that is democratic and pluralistic, a nation where the human rights of every ethnic and religious group are recognized and protected. OK, I'm on board. Let's declare war on Saudi Arabia!" So the Saudis still have an image problem here even though they've spent more than $5 million on public relations since Sept. 11.

As for our European allies, Clyde Prestowitz of Time magazine noted the contrast between the "We Are All Americans" signs in France last September and the current disparity between American and European views of the Middle East. "Sympathy for the victims remains," he wrote, "but the American image is increasingly perceived as ugly and support for U.S. policies is plummeting." And what's worse, he added, "is that European leaders (like English Prime Minister Tony Blair), who have been longtime friends of the U.S., are increasingly critical."

At the same time, domestic public opinion is turning against the Bush administration. In mid-August, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that while Americans generally favored invading Iraq by a 57 to 36 percent margin, they opposed military action by 51 to 40 percent if it involved "significant" U.S. casualties -- "a sign that the public isn't prepared to accept the consequences of a long and bloody conflict," according to the Post. "In other words, most of us are lily-livered sunshine patriots who want an easy victory but shrink from a difficult one," wrote liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Unfortunately, I think he's right.

Kristof said President Bush should answer five questions before declaring war on Iraq: (1) Can we overthrow Saddam swiftly and at a "reasonable" cost in lives? (2) Will an invasion trigger chemical attacks instead of preventing them? (3) Do we have a plan for a post-Saddam Iraq? (4) Is the Iraqi desert the best place to spend $55 billion? And (5) Will a war on Iraq set back the war on terror? Good questions.

Meanwhile, the hawks continue to beat the drums of war. Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire believes that "no evidence of Saddam's support of terror will convince the amalgam of today's McGovernites and yesterday's Bushies of the need to overthrow a dictator racing to acquire nukes." He contends that we can defeat Iraq by enlisting and equipping 70,000 anti-Saddam Kurds in northern Iraq and inducing the powerful Turkish Army to join the liberation with the aid of American and British air power and ground troops. Well maybe, but I think the cost is still too high until and unless President Bush convinces us that Saddam Hussein actually possesses weapons of mass destruction and therefore, represents an imminent threat to U.S. national security.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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