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War in the Persian Gulf would be neither neat nor surgical, but cruel and costly. Only if the consequences of not fighting were even worse than conflict would war be justified. The debate that must take place now has to address that possibility.

Saddam's record is well-known. He created a vast military to satisfy his appetite for resources that have been reinvested in still greater and more fearsome weapons. His behavior indicates a global ambition, not local security concerns. For such an individual, the oil weapon is two-dimensional. Oil resources enable unlimited acquisition of weapons, and oil selectively withheld or overpriced offers a stranglehold on industrialized nations.

Impervious to any pressure from a cowed populace, the dictator can wait out sanctions indefinitely. He recognizes the fragility of the temporary coalition against him. He is aware of the impermanent resolve of a divided America, still traumatized by Vietnam and its hostage crisis, an America genuinely reluctant to send anyone's son to war. Since the invasion, he has shifted his offensive to the media.

Despite what seemed an unparalleled unanimity of opposition, he immediately sought ways to prevail, not retreat. Saddam believes he can win. The ultimate prize of Saudi Arabia's oil fields still awaits. Their acquisition would put inexhaustible resources at the service of unbridled ambition capable of implacable cruelty.

Irresponsible our energy practices surely have been. The fecklessness of some of our allies may be undeniable. It is also true that we cannot claim to be defending democracy among the sheikdoms of the gulf. So much of our national wealth could have been better spent. But do these lamentable conditions mean that we can choose not to fight even if not fighting should hand Saddam the Persian Gulf?

The issue is the way the world is going to be for the foreseeable future. To ensure a world free of a vicious dictator with global ambitions, armed to the teeth with the most advanced weaponry and holding on economic knife to our throat, we may yet have to fight.


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