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Make no mistake: The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush wants to wage war against Iraq. Whether it will do so is another matter; whether it should do so is yet another question. The skeptics received a real boost with the publication of a critique of U.S. foreign policy by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in which he questioned the U.S. government’s seeming readiness to go to war with Iraq. Mr. Scowcroft’s willingness to go public with his criticism is an indication of the deep divisions in the United States over the advisability of going to war with Baghdad. The president would do well to heed the critics.

Mr. Bush has made no secret of his desire to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. There is little room to doubt that the Iraqi dictator is a menace to Middle East peace. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained in an interview last week, “This is a regime that we know has twice tried and come closer than we thought at the time to acquiring nuclear weapons. He has used chemical weapons against his own people and against his neighbors, he has invaded his neighbors, he has killed thousands of his own people. He shoots at our planes, our airplanes, in the no-fly zones where we are trying to enforce U.N. security resolutions.” For Ms. Rice, Mr. Bush and the more hawkish members of the U.S. administration, “This is an evil man who, left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbors and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, on all of us. . . . We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing.”

Were it so simple. The problem is that taking action has consequences of its own. As Mr. Scowcroft pointed out last week, there are very real risks attendant to taking the fight to Mr. Hussein. The most important is the danger that it would shatter the international coalition that has united to fight terrorism. This is the basis of Mr. Scowcroft’s critique. The former national security adviser usually works behind the scenes; his readiness to go public is a sign of the unease about foreign policy priorities in Washington. His logic gains yet more force since it was Mr. Bush himself who set the war against the terrorism as the overarching priority.Moreover, while many governments are willing to fight rootless bands of terrorists, taking on a government is another matter, especially when the evidence tying that government to terrorism is not convincing. The U.S. government’s desire to “get” the Iraqi president is well known; it has raised the already considerable burden of proof that the U.S. must meet to take action. It comes as no surprise, then, that several allied governments have said that they are not ready to support U.S. action against Baghdad.

That is not a problem — yet. Mr. Bush has said that he has not made up his mind, and that he will make his decision “based on the latest intelligence.” To some that means that the president has information he has not yet disclosed; the graphic videotapes of al-Qaeda members training for acts of terror that CNN has shown prove that there is ample reason to be concerned. The game of cat and mouse at Iraqi facilities that the U.S. believes are weapons labs is another worry.The leaks to the press — about the evidence, about Mr. Bush’s thinking, about the supposed war plans — should be treated with caution. Part of the U.S. plan is creating insecurity in Iraq; psychological operations are under way and some of the leaks are an element of this effort. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the media’s hunger for stories is feeding the frenzy. It is August in Washington, traditionally a slow time for news. The lull encourages the reporting, which makes an attack seem more imminent.

In fact, it will be some time before the U.S. goes to war — if indeed it decides to do so. Preparations are underway, which is only prudent if war is at all possible. But war can only be a last option. It is imperative that every other avenue be explored.

While attention has focused on the U.S., the real leader in this endeavor should be the United Nations. The world body is directly involved since Baghdad could forestall a U.S.-led attack by agreeing to observe without condition all U.N. resolutions passed in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. Iraq’s willingness to give weapons inspectors unfettered access to suspected sites would deprive the U.S. of a reason to go to war. That decision would also support the authority of the U.N., which has been severely wounded by Baghdad’s willingness to flout Security Council resolutions. In other words, other governments can take a hard line against Baghdad without supporting a new war against Iraq. Mr. Bush will find his coalition easier to build and sustain if he focuses on those objectives shared by the entire international community.

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