AUSTIN, Texas -- (SET ITAL) "What's so interesting is that he's given in at the ideal moment: really early, when it messes us up." -- Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institute, on Saddam Hussein's agreeing to weapons inspections as quoted in The New York Times. (END ITAL)

Don't you just hate it when the bad guys agree to do what we want them to? If that's not a good reason to go in and take out Saddam, name one.

But our Fearless Leader, not one to be deterred from war merely by getting what he wants, promptly moved the goalposts and issued a new list of demands Iraq must meet, including paying reparations to Kuwait.

If you step back and look at this debate, it just gets stranger and stranger. For one thing, all the evidence is that the administration has already made up its mind and we're going into Iraq this winter. President Bush went to the United Nations and demanded they back him, he's going to Congress to demand they back him, and there it is. This is not a debate, it's Bush in his "You're either with us or against us" mode. It is not a discussion of whether invading Iraq is either necessary or wise.

If you add up all the reasons the administration has advanced for going after Saddam, the only thing left to say -- "Damn right, we need to take out Pervez Musharraf right now!" Musharraf has destroyed democracy in his country, he's backing terrorists in India, our democratic ally, his CIA was hand-in-glove with Al Qaeda, his military is riddled with militant Islamists, his madrasas teach hatred of the West, his heroes are Napoleon and Hitler, and he not only has nukes, he's threatened to use them.

Whereas the Islamists hate Saddam Hussein, there's no evidence he's connected to Al Qaeda, he's broke and his army is one-fifth the size it was the last time we beat him in a couple of days. True, we know he has biological weapons because we gave them to him (see the depressing report in the current Newsweek: "How We Helped Create Saddam?") and probably chemical weapons, as well. The one thing sure to make him use them is an invasion, and frankly he's likely to lob them at Israel. Do we have a right to make them hostages?

The man is certainly a repellent specimen, but there are lots of those around. It must be acknowledged that this is not a situation of moral clarity. Pretending that there's no moral ambiguity here is a profound disservice to both truth and reason. We have done real harm in our past dealings with Saddam Hussein -- among other things, we have now double-crossed the Kurds three times (a sextuple-cross?) Not a pretty record.

The downside to taking on Hussein is not so much getting him out as what happens next. Diplomacy is often likened to chess -- you have to be able to think several moves ahead. There's no evidence the administration has thought past Step One.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican libertarian, has come up with an impressive list of 35 questions that need to be considered. As several commentators have noted, one irony of this situation is that the only real discussion of this campaign is among Republicans (with apologies to Rep. Denis Kucinich and Sen. John Kerry, gutless Democrats abound). Reducing the discussion to sound bites of "chicken hawks" and "appeasers" is of no help at all.

A post-Saddam Iraq will be a mess (Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites fighting), and adding that much more instability to the Middle East is not smart. Bush claims he wants to further democracy in the region, but every indication is that friendly regimes would be replaced by Islamists after a revolution. The old problem, of course -- the root of the resentment -- is what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. We are held to be just as responsible as they are by the Arab world. The smart way to go after Hussein is to wait at least until an Arab-Israeli settlement is reached, and that is a do-able deal. Instead, we've let Ariel Sharon inflame the situation -- more settlements on the West Bank, now there's a genius move. (Naturally, equal credit to the suicide bombers.)

Hussein is notoriously tricky when it comes to weapons inspection. By agreeing to the return of inspectors, Hussein has effectively agreed to Security Council resolution 1248, from 1999, which sets a lower threshold for weapons inspections, including delays and complications. Seems to me the first step should be to get the Security Council to beef up that resolution, even if the French won't accept an "and if you don't ..." clause. Bush is the "if you don't."

The most unpleasant and unhelpful aspect of this "debate" is the implication that anyone who expresses serious doubts about this venture is unpatriotic -- and it often comes from the same people who spent eight years eaten alive with Clinton hatred. Being patriotic doesn't mean agreeing with the government. The most fundamental American right is to not agree with the government and to raise hell about it.

I've always liked Sen. Carl Schurz's definition of patriotism at the turn of the 18th century: "My country right or wrong. When right, to keep right; when wrong, to put right."

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