Saddam Hussein is a cunning, stubborn and potentially irrational opponent of the United States. If Iraq had nuclear weapons today, it would alter the balance of power in the region and threaten American interests. But there is a confusion and uncertainty among the American people about the need for war with Iraq, and especially about its urgency. This is understandable. The primary threat to American lives and interests around the world remains the terrorists of al-Qaeda. To be sure, in the last few weeks there have been important breakthroughs in the fight against terrorism. But we need to keep our eye on the ball, and as we extend our military operations into Iraq, we should do so in a way that advances the campaign against al-Qaeda and minimizes the risks of greater regional instability. We must also have sustained public support, but so far, our national debate on Iraq has been upside down. The Administration announced its aim to change the regime in Baghdad before it made the case for action. To some, our government seemed to be seeking war as a preferred choice rather than as a last resort. We need a real debate to gain the full and informed support of the American people as we move ahead.
In the near term, time is on our side. Saddam has no nuclear weapons today, as far as we know, and probably won't gain them in the next few months. The U.S. has total military dominance of the region. Although Saddam has chemical and biological weapons, he has no long-range missiles with which to deliver them. Certainly, the clock is ticking, because Saddam may eventually acquire the nuclear weapons and delivery systems he seeks. Nonetheless, there is still time for dialogue before we act.
Some would say that since we can't be certain how much time we have until then, we must attack right away. It is true that any delay entails risks. But so does action. So we must balance those risks, and take actions that not only achieve our aim of disarming Saddam--and probably ending his regime in the process--but also help defeat al-Qaeda. How can we do both?