WASHINGTON — The U.N. inspectors in Iraq have suddenly taken front stage. But the process is a sideshow. The real issue is whether an invasion is necessary to protect the West.

The discovery of a dozen empty chemical warheads set off an international debate. Inspectors recently traveled to Baghdad to demand better cooperation. “Some progress” was made, said Mohamed ElBaradel, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

While the inspectors are using the threat of war to win improved access, the Bush administration views inspections as an impediment to be overcome in developing its pretext for war. Before inspections even started, Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared: “Our policy insists on regime change in Baghdad and that policy will not be altered whether inspectors go in or not.”

In fact, no serious person believes that Iraq has genuinely disarmed in response to the United Nations. Thus the inspections don’t matter. The question is, is war the only way to deal with Baghdad? The answer is no. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is not the world’s only brutal dictator. Nor is Iraq the only nation to have threatened its neighbors. Hussein is a cautious predator, not a megalomaniac.

For years Hussein has battled Shiite and Kurdish separatists. In this he is no different than neighboring Turkey, which destroyed 3,000 villages and displaced as many as 2 million people before defeating that nation’s Kurdish insurgency. In 1980 Hussein attacked Iran, which had long challenged Iraq. The West backed Hussein, since it feared Iran more.

Baghdad invaded Kuwait in 1990 in the mistaken belief that Washington would acquiesce. After all, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Hussein that the first Bush administration had “no opinion” in his border dispute.

Since then he has done nothing. Deterrence works equally well against the use of weapons of mass destruction. Hussein employed chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iranians, but neither had a means to retaliate. In contrast, he would face nuclear obliteration by the United States. Indeed, deterrence dissuaded Hussein from using biological or chemical agents during the Persian Gulf War even as bombs were raining down upon him.

Deterrence will work in the future, unless Washington invades to force regime change. Then Hussein has no reason not to unleash whatever weapons that he has on U.S. and allied troops, Israeli civilians and America’s Arab allies.

September 11 raised the issue of terrorism, but Bush administration hawks had advocated war with Iraq long before then. Were there serious evidence linking Hussein to al-Qaeda — secular dictators and religious fanatics rarely mix — U.S. President George W. Bush would have made the case.

In the future, Hussein is unlikely to cooperate with such groups, risking devastating retaliation if such ties were ever discovered. After a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction, Baghdad is the first place Washington would look.

War also creates a far greater risk of proliferation to terrorist groups. The ambassador of a friendly nation privately worries: As his regime implodes, Baghdad may disperse a couple of dozen canisters of anthrax to loyal military and intelligence officers, telling them to do as much damage as possible. Or simply hand them over to al-Qaeda agents directly.

There are other consequences of war. Attacking Iraq is sure to inflame Islamic hatred of the West, offering yet another grievance for recruiting terrorists.

Moreover, conflict could destabilize fragile friendly regimes, such as that of Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Imagine a nuclear-armed fundamentalist Islamic government in Islamabad.

War will divert attention and resources from the battle against al-Qaeda. Terrorist bombs are going off around the world, while U.S. soldiers are being shot even in Kuwait, America’s closest Gulf ally.

Fighting continues to rage in the hills of Afghanistan, where allied soldiers are being ambushed by forces who escape into Pakistan. The most recent attacker was a Pakistani border guard.

Yet Islamabad plays both sides of the street, offering cooperation when pressed by Washington but avoiding confrontation with Islamic radicals when possible. A U.S. attack on Iraq would reduce America’s leverage to demand help and Pakistan’s incentive to accede to such requests. Relations with other nations necessary to battle international terrorist networks — Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia — would be similarly strained.

Then there’s the aftermath. Western troops continue to occupy the artificial state of Bosnia six years after President Bill Clinton promised that they would be home. Dealing with independent Kurds, hostile Shiites, tribal leaders, Baathist elements and returning emigres while juggling demands from Iran and Turkey would be vastly more difficult.

“We do not think that war is inevitable,” says chief arms inspector Hans Blix. It isn’t, but not because of the inspections.

War is not inevitable because President George W. Bush still can say no. And he should say no, because war does not serve the interests of America or its allies.

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