Pope John Paul II, former president Jimmy Carter and a host of other religious and civic leaders have declared that the coming conflict with Iraq would not meet the test of a "just war." Carter laid out his case in a New York Times op-ed essay the other day, and I read it agreeing with some of his points, arguing with others but, in the end, raising a question of my own: Never mind a just war, what about a just peace?

There ought to be such a thing. There ought to be an understanding that while war is bad -- very, very bad -- sometimes peace is no better, especially if all it does is postpone a worse war. That is what would happen if the United States now pulled back, leaving Saddam Hussein in power and our troops sweating in the desert, their morale and their strength dissipating.

What would happen then? Ultimately, Hussein would wait us out. This is what he has been doing since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when he began this game of hide-and-seek with his weapons of mass destruction. If, at the moment, he does not have nuclear weapons, it's not for lack of trying. He had such a program once and he will have one again -- just as soon as the world loses interest and the pressure on him is relaxed.

In the meantime, he will stay in power -- a thug in control of a crucial Middle Eastern nation. He will remain what he is, a despot who runs a criminal regime. He will continue to oppress and murder his own people -- dissidents, Kurds, Shiites and others -- and resume support of terrorism abroad. He is who he is. He deserves no second chance.

I grant you that in the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world. It has linked Hussein with al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that's not the case. And it has managed, in a tour de force of inept diplomacy, to alienate much of the world, including some of our traditional allies.

But the fact remains that were it not for those 250,000 troops sitting out in the desert, there would be no inspectors in Iraq. Hussein kicked them out once and he will kick them out again, just as soon as the world, as is its wont, loses interest and succumbs to the lust for oil, contracts and, in the case of France, the chimera of a glorious yesterday.

I recently saw "The Pianist," Roman Polanski's Oscar-nominated movie. It is based on the Holocaust experience of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish concert pianist. It occurred to me that for some of that time -- 1939, 1940 and almost all of 1941 -- the United States was at peace, faced with no imminent threat from Germany. It took the irrational attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan to get us into the war. Had Japan not struck, God only knows what might have happened.

I do not equate Iraq with Nazi Germany. The threat is not the same. But what is the same is that once again we are faced with a beast and the challenge to do something about him. The world has repeatedly ordered Hussein to disarm. He has not done so. The world cannot now simply turn away or selfishly demand that America keep an army on his borders to be used, really, only when France says so.

Some of the arguments raised against war are daunting. But some of them are just plain insulting. Where were the peace marchers when Hussein was using poison gas against the Kurds? Where were they when he slaughtered the Shiites? Where were they when he invaded Iran and then Kuwait? Why don't those so-called human shields in Baghdad find Hussein's torture chambers and chain themselves to the gates?

I have neither the credentials nor the inclination to get into a theological dispute about a just war. Frankly, I think there is altogether too much "God talk" already. What's more, I have some doubts about this war -- especially the challenge of governing and rebuilding Iraq afterward. But I have less doubt about the sort of peace that would result from what, after all, would be appeasement. Saddam Hussein -- not to mention other despots -- will have taken the measure of us. He will resume his old ways. By then, a just war might be unthinkable -- and a just peace no longer in our grasp.