FACED WITH a Republican president determined to confront the tyrannical and dangerous Saddam Hussein, Democrats wishing to offer responsible opposition have more than one option. They might endorse the goal of regime change -- which was, after all, the official policy of the Clinton administration -- while urging President Bush to do it right: Enlist allies. Level with the American people on potential costs. Prepare for a long and arduous reconstruction of Iraq. This is the stance consistently adopted by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and, more recently, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Alternatively, Democrats might argue that the many risks of war and its aftermath outweigh the risks of living with Saddam Hussein. The dictator can be contained, they might argue, as North Korea's dictator has been discouraged from aggression. This would be a defensible position (though it is not one we support), and it is probably one that many Democrats privately believe in.

Publicly, however, few have the courage to say so. Instead, many would-be Democratic leaders have settled on a weaselly third way: to criticize almost everything Mr. Bush does in his Iraq policy without actually opposing war. That way, if anything goes wrong, they will have presciently warned the country; but if war comes and is a success, they will not face the same kind of second-guessing as occurred after 1991, when most Democrats had voted against the Persian Gulf War ("the right vote at that moment in time," as Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said on Sunday).

Former president Bill Clinton has now joined his vice president, Al Gore, and Mr. Kerry in this camp. "Iraq is important, but the terror network is more urgent in terms of its threat to our security," Mr. Clinton said in his 55-minute pep talk and counseling session to Democrats in New York on Monday. What does that mean, exactly? That the United States should postpone any confrontation with Saddam Hussein while it deals with al Qaeda? Mr. Clinton doesn't spell it out.

What's so striking about this is not the characteristically calculated positioning but the contrast to Mr. Clinton's own views as president -- or what he said were his own views. There was a time when Mr. Clinton seemed to understand that Saddam Hussein and terrorists were not separate problems at all. In 1998 he called Iraq a "rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers or organized criminals who travel the world among us unnoticed."

That description came as the Clinton administration was threatening the use of force so that Iraq would agree -- "and soon -- to free, full, unfettered access to these sites anywhere in the country. There can be no dilution or diminishment of the integrity of the inspection system." And Mr. Clinton was clear and eloquent about the consequences if the United States and other nations failed to insist on such inspections -- so eloquent, in fact, that Mr. Bush might do well to steal some of his persuasive words. "What if he fails to comply and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route, which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction? . . . Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you he'll use the arsenal."

Sadly, Mr. Clinton did not succeed in establishing such an inspection regime. He then set aside his eloquence, and apparently his understanding of the nexus between Saddam Hussein and terrorism. Now the Bush administration -- thanks in part to unilateralist rhetoric condemned by Mr. Gore and Mr. Kerry -- has succeeded in winning United Nations support for an inspections regime. But the president, rightly, has said inspections aren't enough; Saddam Hussein must cooperate -- must offer an honest accounting of his weapons programs.

Mr. Gore said in September, "We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country." If Saddam Hussein denies this weekend what Mr. Gore says he knows, what is the right response? It's not a question the Democrats should be ducking.