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Published: Saturday, 10/12/2002

White House Watch: When the dinner conversation turns to war

WASHINGTON - A few days ago, at an international dinner party in Montreal hosted by Larry Shapiro, director of World Affairs Television, the seafood, salad, veal, and dessert courses were spliced with passionate talk of the coming war with Iraq.

“I'm confused,” said the former Canadian ambassador to Bosnia. “You Americans are talking about sending thousands of troops to Iraq. You're already in so many other places. Where will it stop?”

Nonetheless, he said, he suspects that when push comes to shove, he'll support the American President.

The ex-deputy director of the CIA harbors no such misgivings. There may be no smoking gun against Saddam Hussein, he said, but he is convinced this is a task that must be undertaken.

The Egyptian newspaperman is not convinced at all. He worries about instability in the Middle East. He worries that the Islamic world will unite against America. He foresees years of chaos, even if war is quick and sure and successful in ousting a man most of the world hates.

Such talk is going on around dinner tables not just in the United States but around the world. The questions are deep and disturbing and should be probed again and again.

President Bush's speech the other night, somber and well-rehearsed, did not do the job. He still has not convinced millions that this war is justified right now. The speech was almost like a parent's litany, “We have to do this right now because I said so.”

For all the debate and dissension around the table in Montreal, there was unanimity of opinion that Mr. Bush has handled this poorly. The cynics think he's made Saddam Hussein the evil-doer du jour to deflect attention from the failure to capture Osama bin Laden and the lack of action on the war against terrorism. The skeptics think he's determined to create “regime change” in Iraq to avenge the Iraqi leader's foiled assassination attempt in Kuwait against former President George H.W. Bush, his father.

And yet Mr. Bush has some strong arguments for smiting Saddam quickly and powerfully. The man cares nothing about human life. He is a tyrant who cannot be trusted and hates America. He does have chemical and biological weapons and probably will use them. He could develop nuclear weapons or satchels full of biological and chemical agents and give them to terrorists to use against America or Israel.

On the other hand, thousands of innocent lives could be taken. Saddam might still escape. The United States could be in Iraq for years struggling to keep the peace between factions that hate each other as much as the warring factions do in Afghanistan, where keeping peace is proving elusive. The Islamic world could resent the United States for years. The cost, possibly as high as $200 billion, could rock the weak U.S. economy even harder.

For all of us debating the pros and cons over and over in our minds and at the dinner table, it was disconcerting to learn that the head of the CIA is not convinced the CIA's intelligence shows that Iraq is as immediate a threat to the United States as Mr. Bush said in his speech to the nation from Cincinnati. The CIA, in an amazing letter signed by director George Tenet, argues that Iraq probably would not give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists unless as a last resort if Saddam felt he was about to lose power. But the CIA refuses to hand over classified documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee so senators can see for themselves what the evidence is.

When a country contemplates a preemptive strike at another country, as the President argues is essential, even our economic woes pale in comparison. There is no greater cause for debate. And nobody who raises questions should be accused of being unpatriotic or treasonous, as is happening on the nation's airwaves.

The experts in the administration are divided and have been for months. The fact that the dissidents who work directly for the President quietly still hope that diplomatic efforts will succeed in preventing all-out war does not mean they are lily-livered or naive. Likewise, those who argue most fiercely for quick action are not insensitive clods lacking in compassion.

The debate in Congress has been wrenching. Men have broken down in tears. Women have spoken with emotion seldom seen on the floor of either the House or the Senate. Politics are being put aside as the lawmakers say what they really feel and think, not what they believe their constituents - or colleagues - want to hear. It is a time when new profiles in courage are being written.

As the dinner party in Montreal ended, shortly before midnight, the men and women who had been arguing vociferously hugged and shook hands and vowed to see each other again. They agreed, however, that sad and uncertain as it is, war seems inevitable.


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