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By James O'Brien

James C. O'Brien was senior advisor to the U.S. secretary of State during the Clinton administration.

WASHINGTON -- Is war with Iraq inevitable?

Right now, it looks so. Make no mistake -- if President George W. Bush is confident that Saddam Hussein poses a threat to America or our allies, he has a duty to act.

The problem is that the president has given himself a choice between war and wimpishness.

The flaws in the U.N. inspections are evident. U.N. inspectors cannot guarantee our safety, no matter how many Iraqi scientists they interview. Even if the inspectors could uncover all Iraq's weapons in the next few months, once American forces started to leave the Gulf, Saddam -- empowered by having survived yet another challenge -- would again create nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Seen in this light, the case for war must seem clear to the president. Our troops are almost in position and will win once conflict starts. International criticism of the administration is disappearing as Saddam continues to lie. A quick win may even strengthen the administration as it gathers itself to confront North Korea.

But it could also leave us with a war we do not need (if Saddam in fact poses little threat), at a time when other threats (like Al Qaeda, whose leadership remains at large, and North Korea) demand attention, and another long-term commitment could be costly and dangerous.

In the face of these risks, the president's decision to go to war should not be made without a real choice. He should demand that his advisors create a viable third option.

If the administration proceeds carefully, it can create broad international support for policies that will create regime change in Iraq soon and without invasion.

The policy could have several elements, probably enshrined in a new U.N. Security Council resolution. Some components could be:

-- Control Saddam's money. Regime change will follow the money. Despite stringent U.N. sanctions on trade and investment, Saddam has money at his disposal. The international community should tighten controls, for example on discounts given on equipment and services in exchange for oil contracts or lines of credit made available (legally or not) in return for an interest in Iraqi oil.
Experts with access to intelligence information will have to work out details, but it may be enough to investigate long-term oil and food contracts; to insist that revenues from smuggling be paid into accounts controlled by the United Nations; and to find ways to shut off Baghdad's banking ties. Saddam may be able to hide cash-and-carry deals, but credit is the backbone of any modern state. Dictatorships like those of Slobodan Milosevic (toward whose regime I coordinated U.S. policy) and Suharto collapsed within months after they lost access to the international banking and loan system.

-- Destroy suspected weapons sites. Coalition aircraft do not now strike weapons sites throughout Iraq. They should. Saddam could avoid these strikes if he allowed international inspectors free access. This threat is sustainable: air forces can remain long after ground troops leave; coalition aircraft have flown over Iraq for 12 years already.

-- Build democracy. It is naive to insist on nationwide democracy until Saddam is gone. Kurdish and Shia areas, however, should receive extensive international support for democratic local institutions, including U.N. and other help to conduct elections and improve government performance. They should also receive international assistance to replace Saddam's security services with law enforcement compatible with democracy and clear international legal authority to defend them against Baghdad.

They now receive only limited air support based on (in the case of the Kurds) a legal rationale that has been contested since 1991. Local democratic institutions should also receive a share of Iraqi oil revenues.

-- Indict Saddam and his associates. Indictments for genocide and other crimes can encourage domestic opposition, assure those not indicted and, perhaps most importantly, discourage international meddling to keep Saddam in power. As former NATO Commander Gen. Wesley Clark noted, our partners' resolve to defeat Milosevic stiffened measurably once he was indicted during the war over Kosovo.

As a tactical matter, the administration will not want to make suggestions like these. Other members of the Security Council (Germany is a new member and looking for a way to influence international policies) may be willing to float ideas so that the option can be shaped before the administration must make its decision.

It may be too soon to say whether the president should take up any of the options I have suggested. But he owes it to himself -- and our troops -- to consider the benefits of all alternatives that can promote our safety.

The president might find that this approach would protect America and our allies; bring about Saddam's downfall; win broad, strong international support (political and financial) for democracy in the Gulf; and show that the administration can pursue regime change without invasion, a lesson useful in other contexts (such as North Korea) where it is reluctant to threaten force.

Some will say that the time for such initiatives has passed. Time is short. Every day, however, the administration wins more credit globally for its clear determination to use force. It is time to see what that credit can purchase.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 1/14/03)