WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush says he hasn’t made up his mind about “any of our policies in regard to Iraq.” But to not attack after spending months talking about regime change is inconceivable. Unfortunately, war is not likely to be as simple and certain as he and many others seem to think.

Lots of arguments have been offered on behalf of a U.S. strike on Baghdad. For instance, that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is an evil man who has brutalized his own people.

True, but the world is full of brutal regimes that have murdered their own people. Indeed, Washington ally Turkey’s treatment of its Kurds is scarcely more gentle than Iraq’s Kurdish policies.

Slightly more plausible is the contention that a democratic Iraq would provide a model for the rest of the Mideast. But that presupposes democracy can be easily planted and sustained. Professions of unity from an opposition once dismissed by retired Gen. Anthony Zinni as “silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London” offer little comfort and are likely to last no longer than have similar promises in Afghanistan.

Also problematic are Kurdish demands for autonomy and Shiite Muslim resistance to the central government. One U.S. defense official told the Washington Post: “I think it is almost a certainty that we’d wind up doing a campaign against the Kurds and Shiites.”

Similarly worrisome would be action by Iran, with which Baghdad fought a decade-long war. Tehran might consider intervention against a weakened Iraq as an antidote to serious political unrest at home.

Moreover, while Americans might see America’s war on Iraq as a war for democracy, most Arabs would see it as a war for Washington. If the United States deposes Hussein, but leaves in place despotic, pro-American regimes elsewhere — such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — few Arabs would take Washington’s rhetoric seriously.

Hussein’s complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks would present a good argument for devastating retaliation, but there’s no evidence that he was involved. The best argument for overthrowing Hussein is the prospect of Baghdad developing weapons of mass destruction.

Yet if nonproliferation should be enforced by war, Washington will be very busy in the coming years. The problem is not just countries like Iran and North Korea, which seem to have or have had serious interest in developing atomic weapons. It is India, Pakistan, and Russia, which face unpredictable nationalist and theological currents, enjoy governments of varying instability and offer uncertain security over technical know-how as well as weapons.

Potentially most dangerous is Pakistan’s arsenal. The government of Pervez Musharraf is none too steady; Islamabad long supported the Taliban and its military and intelligence forces almost certainly contain al-Qaeda sympathizers. It is easy to imagine Pakistan’s nuclear technology falling into terrorist hands.

In contrast, Hussein would not use such weapons against America, since to do so would guarantee his incineration. Israel possesses a similarly overbearing deterrent. Would Baghdad turn atomic weapons over to terrorists? Not likely.

First, to give up a technology developed at such a high price would be extraordinary. Second, Baghdad would be the immediate suspect and likely target of retaliation should any terrorist deploy nuclear weapons. Third, al-Qaeda holds secular Arab dictators in contempt and might target Hussein as well as America.

Of course, the world would be a better place without Hussein’s dictatorship. But that’s no reason to initiate war against a state that poses no direct, ongoing threat — especially since war often has unpredictable consequences. Washington would have to bear most of the burden, a task made more difficult and expensive without European support and Saudi staging grounds.

If Iraq’s forces didn’t quickly crumble, the U.S. might find itself involved in urban conflict that would be costly in human and political terms. Hussein would have an incentive to use any weapons of mass destruction that it possesses, since Washington is dedicated to his overthrow.

Further, the U.S. would be sloshing gasoline over undemocratic Arab regimes stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Riots in Egypt, a fundamentalist rising in Pakistan, a spurt of sectarian violence in Indonesia, and who knows what else could pose a high price for any success in Iraq.

War is serious. Making war on a country that does not directly threaten the U.S. or anyone else is particularly serious. Even if the optimists who think a campaign against Iraq would be easy are right, and we can only hope they are, war should be a last resort.

As House Majority Leader Richard Armey warned, an unprovoked attack “would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or what we should be as a nation.” There are times when Washington and its allies have no choice but to fight. Iraq is not such a place and now is not such a time.

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