It now seems clear to President Bush -- and should be clear to the rest of us -- that there is no longer any alternative to war with Iraq. There are a number of reasons for that being the case, but three are preeminent:

1) Iraq poses a present danger to the United States. As the Bush administration is fond of saying, the prospect that one of the world's most dangerous nations could get its hands on the world's most dangerous weapons is intolerable. There is only one problem: that intolerable condition applies today in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

There is, moreover, evidence that Saddam has already acted on his oft-stated desire for revenge against the United States following Operation Desert Storm. Iraq expert Laurie Mylroie has documented myriad circumstantial indicators of Iraqi involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. A former Oklahoma City television reporter named Jayna Davis has amassed a similar wealth of evidence that Iraqi nationals collaborated with Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the murderous 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal Building.

And, it appears that Saddam's terrorist training facilities and operatives may have helped the Sept. 11 terrorists.

Unfortunately, at the moment, none of the available evidence gives rise to an airtight case against the Iraqi despot. That will probably remain so until U.S. forces are inside Saddam's secret bunkers and files. The evidence in hand, however, is certainly consistent with the trail of a skillful intelligence operation tasked with inflicting mass destruction on the United States but not getting caught at it. And we ignore at our peril the possibility that Saddam may take advantage of any future opportunity to employ terrorist cutouts to strike even more devastating blows down the road.

2) The U.N. inspectors have already done their most important job by establishing that Saddam has no intention of voluntarily disarming. Despite the calls from many quarters to give Hans Blix and his colleagues more time, the fact is that the past two months of inspections have demonstrated indisputably that Saddam Hussein's regime is no more willing to comply with the latest security council resolution than with any of its predecessors.

The absence of Iraqi cooperation means that it is unlikely inspectors will find hard evidence that Iraq remains armed with weapons of mass destruction. It amounts, however, to a fool's errand to persist in trying when Saddam's non-compliant behavior establishes a more-than-sufficient casus belli.

3) A coup won't do. The last-ditch alternative to U.S.-led military operations being touted by Saudi Arabia and several other nations -- having Saddam willingly or involuntarily leave office -- is a non-starter for several reasons.

First, it would hardly be acceptable to have some new thug pick up in Baghdad where the last one left off. If anything, a new despot might find it easier to continue Saddam's covert weapons of mass destruction programs and aggressive regional designs, particularly if U.N.-imposed economic sanctions and constraints on Iraqi oil sales are removed following the coup.

Second, President Bush has repeatedly expressed his determination to liberate the people of Iraq. It is unimaginable that he would wish to be party to yet another American betrayal of their aspiration for liberty and economic opportunity.

And third, swapping thugs in Iraq would foreclose the Bush team's most ambitious and laudable goal: The creation of a model of a prosperous Arab democracy in the Middle East that could inspire and catalyze dramatic and constructive changes elsewhere in the region.

The potentially hugely beneficial repercussions of such changes -- for the peoples most immediately involved, for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the war on terror -- demand that this important option not be precluded, particularly by those Saudi and other despots who have the most to lose.

In short, the time has come for the United States to act. It would be reckless to delay further in the hope of securing at some point down the road the support of nations that perceive it in their national interest to preserve Saddam Hussein's regime and to thwart any affirmation of the preeminence of American power.

At best, such a course simply affords Saddam more time to conceal, disperse and prepare to use his weapons of mass destruction and/or to prepare a "scorched earth" strategy -- adding hugely to the costs to us and to the Iraqi people of effecting their liberation. At worst, further deferral to the UN, and squandering of what little opportunity for surprise remains, invites Saddam to "go first," attacking our forces, allies or territory preemptively (directly or through cut-outs) in the hope of allowing him to dodge the bullet yet again. It's time to pull the trigger.

 

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