Now, To War

President Bush has now cleared the decks for action on his most immediate and important agenda item: Ending the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his ruling clique in Iraq.

The president secured a smashing electoral mandate on the basis of a campaign waged explicitly -- at every whistle stop and in every endorsement address -- as a referendum on his stewardship of the war on terror. No less significant, he did so after winning overwhelming, bipartisan support for the liberation of Iraq from a Congress that had one chamber in Democratic control.

He can be confident of commanding even greater support from a Republican-dominated Senate and House -- particularly since Democrats who won closely contested races generally did so by aligning themselves with the President on the war.

There is, in short, now no legal or political impediment to the sort of swift action that offers the best hope of toppling Saddam with minimum U.S. casualties and at the least further cost to the Iraqi people: The weather conditions are about as conducive to military operations as they ever are in that part of the world. Sufficient American and British units are now or shortly will be in the region to execute lightning strikes at Saddam's security apparatus. And evidence grows by the day that the Iraqi populace senses its liberation is at hand and is prepared to play a role -- possibly a decisive one -- in ending Saddam's nightmarish reign of terror.

This outcome is, of course, the only one that holds out any hope for effecting the genuine and complete disarmament of Iraq. After all, even if -- against all odds -- Saddam Hussein were actually to cooperate with international efforts to find and destroy his weapons of mass destruction, and such efforts were to succeed, he could be back in the WMD business within six-months time. That period could be shortened even further if, as seems likely, a declaration that Iraq was WMD-free would precipitate the end of sanctions against Iraq.

Accordingly, if the international community is finally serious about accomplishing the goal of ridding the world of the threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, it would do well to encourage the United States and a coalition of the willing to seize the present moment to rid Iraq of Saddam and his ruling clique.

Unfortunately, Saddam's long-time friends at the United Nations (notably, France, Russia, China and U.N. bureaucrats like Secretary General Kofi Annan and chief inspector Hans Blix) insist that the Iraqi despot be given one more chance to play hide-and-seek with international inspectors. While the Anglo-American resolution introduced in the Security Council today is long on the reasons why such a further stay of execution for Saddam is undeserved and unlikely to work out, it agrees to give the Butcher of Baghdad still more time -- time he will probably use to squirrel away his covert arms caches and relevant files, to try to bring on line nuclear weapons, and to use his allies at the U.N. to hold off U.S. action until the intolerable temperatures return next spring.

There are some indications that, even now, further whittling away may take place on the U.S.-U.K. draft resolution. The French and Russians claim they want more "clarifications." The ever-accommodating Inspector Blix warns that it is unreasonable to ask Saddam to declare his inventory of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems in just 30 days or to remove his scientists and their families from Iraq, thereby maximizing their chances of cooperation with investigators. And Secretary of State Colin Powell -- the prime-mover in the U.S. government behind the "hell-no-we-won't-go-without-the-U.N." strategy -- has canceled a trip to Asia this week so as to be on hand for further negotiations.

As a result, President Bush is at serious risk of being denied the latitude to act against Saddam Hussein that his extraordinary domestic political efforts have secured for him. To avoid such an outcome, he would be well advised at this juncture to reject any further dilution of the terms of the draft Security Council resolution. If anything, they should be toughened -- particularly, the determination as to whether Saddam is in further "material breach" of his obligations by impeding the inspectors must not be left up to Mr. Blix and/or his International Atomic Energy Agency counterpart.

The United States must be able to make that call on its own, if need be.

Even such a shoring up of the Anglo-American resolution will not, however, correct its major, inherent flaws: In Saddam's hands, the inspectors can be turned into "human shields" or hostages to stave off U.S.-led military operations. In any event, they will be unable to find everything the Iraqi regime has hidden, but will buy the latter time it will use to our detriment.

For all these reasons, far from fearing and trying to avert a French, Russian and/or Chinese veto of the draft resolution, President Bush should be hoping they will do just that. By so demonstrating they are with Saddam and against us, these nations would help the president put squarely behind him the extra-legal and ill-advised notion that actions he believes necessary in the U.S. national interest and that have been explicitly authorized by Congress can only be undertaken if first secures the blessing of the United Nations.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.