Why war? Why now? The president's answer

Friday, February 7, 2003 at 12:00am

Why war? Why now? Those are the questions President Bush's critics keep asking, but the critics are not alone in wanting answers. Most voters tell pollsters they're uneasy about moving too quickly toward war. And, though they strongly back the president's policy toward Iraq, they'd like to see more evidence against Saddam Hussein before the U.S. military moves on Baghdad.

But to "Why war?" there is a group of intellectuals and foreign policy experts who answer, "This war is long overdue." Saddam, they argue, has violated the terms of settlement of the last conflict and should be made to pay the consequences.

Beyond that, these advocates of action have for years seen the ouster of the Iraqi leader as the first step in the redrawing of the map of the Middle East. They visualize the creation of a democratic Arab state, which would help spread democracy throughout the region. That, they believe, could result in more stable regimes governing the oil fields.

President Clinton made regime change in Iraq one of his foreign policy objectives, but did not move to invade. As years passed after the Persian Gulf War, Saddam grew stronger. Even so, President Bush told the press last week, his administration decided against invasion as well, choosing instead to draft a plan for "smart sanctions" against Iraq. Then came Sept. 11.

"After Sept. 11, the doctrine of containment just doesn't hold any water," the president said at a press conference. "The strategic view of America changed after Sept. 11. We must deal with threats before they hurt the American people again."

And there is the answer to "Why now?" The president and his advisors live with the horrible fact that the greatest terrorist action against America came on their watch. The nightmare of another attack, and the prospect of being held responsible, haunts them. When critics at home and abroad look at the situation, they ask, "Where's the evidence against Saddam Hussein?" To the people running the country when terrorism struck, the answer is simple: The Iraqi dictator wants harm to befall the United States; he has shown in the past he's willing to use horrendous weapons, and no one believes he's telling the truth about destroying those weapons.

That's enough evidence anyone needs in the Sept. 11 world, as far as the White House is concerned. On the day of the attacks, the president said last week, we learned we are vulnerable, and that the worst attacks could come from someone with access to weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, Bush added, "would like nothing more than to use a terrorist network to attack and to kill and leave no fingerprints behind."

The day after the president spoke, the Columbia blew up, and the first thought was terrorism. It reminded us all of the danger that lies out there. The American people are well aware of the danger. That's why, in the latest ABC News poll, two-thirds say they support attacking Iraq to oust Saddam. More than three-fourths say the reason for an attack would be to protect the United States from terrorist threats.

Democrats must heed those numbers as they press on with the "Why war? Why now?" drumbeat. In a survey conducted by a group of Democratic activists, Republicans scored 30 points higher on the questions of which party does a better job on homeland security.

What, in the end, could be more important? That's President Bush's question as he contemplates putting American soldiers in danger. He stated it clearly last week: "My vision shifted dramatically after Sept. 11 because I now realize the stakes.

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