AUSTIN, Texas -- "Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Normally, making the case for peace over war requires the brain of a gnat. "Jaw, jaw," said Winston Churchill, "is better than war, war." There's not much historical evidence that war does anyone any good: some rare cases of "just war" under St. Augustine's definition. Mostly war (A) kills a lot of people, causing hard feelings; (B) doesn't solve anything; (C) has hideous unintended consequences that often lead to more war. Avoid war if at all possible is the first rule of statesmanship.

Conservatives are fond of pointing out there are problems in this world can't be solved by throwing money at them. There are even more that can't be solved by dropping bombs on them.

We are in such a strange position here, preparing to attack a country that has neither attacked us nor threatened to attack us. President Bush calls his new doctrine "pre-emptive war," but pre-emptive war is what Israel did in 1967, with the Egyptian army massing on its borders. They attacked first under clear threat. John Ikenberry, professor of international relations at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post that this administration has embarked on something "quite extraordinary in American history, a preventive war, and the threshold for justification should be extraordinarily high."

Try to wrap your mind around the concept of preventive war. We tried having a war to end wars (didn't work); now we're having a war to prevent war?

I am perfectly well aware there is a case to be made for taking out Saddam Hussein -- you can make it on humanitarian grounds alone. The question is whether it's riskier to leave him alone or take him out. The oldest of all Texas dicta is, "Leave the rattlesnake alone." Those of us who spend time outdoors here not infrequently encounter snakes and sometimes have to kill them. But the rule is: You don't bother the snake, snake won't bother you. Saddam Hussein is 68 years old and slipping.

I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, "Horrible three-way civil war?" And as George W. Bush himself once said, "Unrest in the Middle East causes unrest throughout the region."

Let me point out what we have already lost: enormous amounts of goodwill and esteem all over the world. We are the saber-rattlers here; we are the aggressors, and the world knows it. The indifference of this administration to the opinions of the rest of the world is astonishing. After 9-11, we threw away more goodwill and sympathy than you can imagine by switching from the hunt for Al Qaeda to this ancillary (if that) mission to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

There is no evidence connecting Iraq to Al Qaeda. As Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said in a recent speech: "Iraq has not committed any act of aggression against the United States. Iraq was not responsible for 9-11. Iraq was not responsible for the anthrax attack on our nation. The United Nations has yet to establish that Iraq has useable weapons of mass destruction. There is no intelligence that Iraq has the ability to strike at the United States. According to the CIA, Iraq has no intention to attack America, but will defend itself if attacked.

"Why, then, is our nation prepared to send 300,000 of our young men and women into house-to-house combat in the streets of Baghdad and Basra? Why is our nation prepared to spend $200 billion or more of our hard-earned tax dollars for the destruction of Iraq?"

Richard Perle, chair of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board, is a leading member of the small attack-Iraq-no-matter-what claque that is relentlessly pushing this war. He said bluntly last week in Britain that it makes no difference whether the U.N. weapons inspectors find anything or not. Great, we're ready to go to war on no evidence.

This war is not inevitable, and the person who can stop it is you. Monday, Jan. 20 is Dr. King's holiday. People all over the country will be rallying and marching in his honor, celebrating not only his eloquent opposition to racism and poverty, but his equally passionate protests against militarism. You get more than a vote in this country. You get to speak up. Write, phone, fax and e-mail your representative, senators and the White House. Vote in the streets. Do it.

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." -- Dr. King

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.