"I HAVE BEEN a faithful reader of The Washington Post for almost 10 years," a recent e-mail to this page begins. "Recently, however, I have grown tired of your bias and endless drumbeating for war in Iraq." He's not the only one. The national and international debate over Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and our editorials in favor of disarming the dictator, have prompted a torrent of letters, many approving and many critical. They are for the most part thoughtful and serious; the antiwar letters in particular are often angry and anguished as well. "It is truly depressing to witness the depths Washington Post editors have reached in their jingoistic rush to war," another reader writes. It's a serious charge, and it deserves a serious response.
That answer, given the reference to "Washington Post editors," probably needs to begin with a restatement of the separation at The Post between news and editorial opinion functions. Those of us who write editorials have no influence over editors and reporters who cover the news and who are committed to offering the fairest and most complete journalism possible about the standoff with Iraq. They in turn have no influence over us.
For our part, we might begin with that phrase "rush to war." In fact there is nothing sudden or precipitous about our view that Saddam Hussein poses a grave danger. In 1990 and 1991 we supported many months of diplomacy and pressure to persuade the Iraqi dictator to withdraw his troops from Kuwait, the neighboring country he had invaded. When he failed to do so, we supported the use of force to restore Kuwait's independence. While many of the same Democrats who oppose force now opposed it then also, we believe war was the correct option -- though it was certainly not, at the time, the only choice. When the war ended, we supported -- in hindsight too unquestioningly -- a cease-fire agreement that left Saddam Hussein in power. But it was an agreement, imposed by the U.N. Security Council, that demanded that he give up his dangerous weapons.
In 1997 and 1998, we strongly backed President Clinton when he vowed that Iraq must finally honor its commitments to the United Nations to give up its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons -- and we strongly criticized him when he retreated from those vows. Mr. Clinton understood the stakes. Iraq, he said, was 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."
When we cite Mr. Clinton's perceptive but ultimately empty comments, it is in part to chide him and other Democrats who take a different view now that a Republican is in charge. But it has a more serious purpose too. Mr. Clinton could not muster the will, or the domestic or international support, to force Saddam Hussein to live up to the promises he had made in 1991, though even then the danger was well understood. Republicans who now line up behind President Bush were in many cases particularly irresponsible; when Mr. Clinton did bomb Iraqi weapons sites in 1998, some GOP leaders accused him of seeking only to distract the nation from his impeachment worries. Through the end of Mr. Clinton's tenure and the first year of Mr. Bush's presidency, Saddam Hussein built up his power, beat back sanctions and found new space to rearm -- all with the support of France and Russia and the acquiescence of the United States.
After Sept. 11, 2001, many people of both parties said -- and we certainly hoped -- that the country had moved beyond such failures of will and politicization of deadly foreign threats. An outlaw dictator, in open defiance of U.N. resolutions, unquestionably possessing and pursuing biological and chemical weapons, expressing support for the Sept. 11 attacks: Surely the nation would no longer dither in the face of such a menace. Now it seems again an open question. To us, risks that were clear before seem even clearer now.
But what of our "jingoism," our "drumbeating"? Probably no editorial page sin could be more grievous than whipping up war fever for some political or trivial purpose. And we do not take lightly the risks of war -- to American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians first of all. We believe that the Bush administration has only begun to prepare the public for the sacrifices that the nation and many young Americans might bear during and after a war. And there is a long list of terrible things that could go wrong: anthrax dispersed, moderate regimes imperiled, Islamist recruiting spurred, oil wells set afire.
The right question, though, is not "Is war risky?" but "Is inaction less so?" No one can provide more than a judgment in reply. But the world is already a dangerous place. Anthrax has been wielded in Florida, New York and Washington. Terrorists have struck repeatedly and with increasing strength over the past decade. Are the United States and its allies ultimately safer if they back down again and leave Saddam Hussein secure? Or does safety lie in making clear that his kind of outlaw behavior will not be tolerated and in helping Iraq become a peaceable nation that offers no haven to terrorists? We would say the latter, while acknowledging the magnitude of the challenge, both during and especially after any war that may have to be fought. And we would say also that not only terrible things are possible: To free the Iraqi people from the sadistic repression of Saddam Hussein, while not the primary goal of a war, would surely be a blessing.
Nor is it useful merely to repeat that war "should only be a last resort," as the latest French-German-Russian resolution states, or that, as French President Jacques Chirac said Monday, Iraq must disarm "because it represents a danger for the region and maybe the world . . . but we believe this disarmament must happen peacefully." Like everyone else, we hope it does happen peacefully. But if it does not -- if Saddam Hussein refuses as he has for a dozen years -- should that refusal be accommo- dated?
War in fact has rarely been the last resort for the United States. In very recent times, the nation could have allowed Saddam Hussein to swallow Kuwait. It could have allowed Slobodan Milosevic to expel 1 million refugees from Kosovo. In each case, the nation and its allies fought wars of choice. Even the 2001 campaign against Afghanistan was not a "last resort," though it is now remembered as an inevitable war of self-defense. Many Americans argued that the Taliban had not attacked the United States and should not be attacked; that what was needed was a police action against Osama bin Laden. We believed they were wrong and Mr. Bush was right, though he will be vindicated in history only if the United States and its allies stay focused on Afghanistan and its reconstruction.
So the real questions are whether every meaningful alternative has been exhausted, and if so whether war is wise as well as justified. The risks should not be minimized. Everyone agrees, for example, that the United States would be stronger before and during a war if joined by many allies, and even better positioned if backed by the United Nations. If waiting a month, or three months, would ensure such backing, the wait would be worthwhile.
But the history is not encouraging. The Security Council agreed unanimously in early November that Iraq was a danger; that inspectors could do no more than verify a voluntary disarmament; and that a failure to disarm would be considered a "material breach." Now all agree that Saddam Hussein has not cooperated, and yet some countries balk at the consequences -- as they have, time and again, since 1991. We have seen no evidence that an additional three months would be helpful. Nor does it strike us as serious to argue that the war should be fought if Mr. Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agree, but not if they do not. If the war is that optional, it should not be fought, even if those leaders do agree; if it is essential to U.S. national security, their objections ultimately cannot be dispositive.
In 1998 Mr. Clinton explained to the nation why U.S. national security was, in fact, in danger. "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."
Some argue now that, because Saddam Hussein has not in the intervening half-decade used his arsenal, Mr. Clinton was wrong and the world can rest assured that Iraq is adequately "contained." Given what we know about how containment erodes over time; about Saddam Hussein's single-mindedness compared with the inattention and divisions of other nations; and about the ease with which deadly weapons can move across borders, we do not trust such an assurance. Mr. Clinton understood, as Mr. Bush understands, that no president can bet his nation's safety on the hope that Iraq is "contained." We respect our readers who believe that war is the worst option. But we believe that, in this case, long-term peace will be better served by strength than by concessions.