WASHINGTON - Now that the United States has laid out its rationale for disarming Iraq with force and war seems inevitable, millions of Americans are asking if this will be a just war.
On no other issue of national issue is the debate livelier. No other current debate is more important.
With the lives of American men and women and Iraqi men, women and children at stake, and the future of a tormented region of the world hanging in the balance, each of us has to think through this issue.
Both sides of the debate over whether it is moral to go to war to disarm Iraq - and remove Saddam Hussein from power - have powerful arguments.
Those who side with the hawks, for want of a better species, point out correctly that Saddam is ruthless, in the past has invaded another country, has killed his own people, has biological and chemical weapons, would like to acquire nuclear weapons, and has bedeviled the United States for years. In a sense the U.S.-maintained no-fly zone, never sanctioned by the United Nations, has meant a low-level state of war for 12 years. The hawks say: Enough.
Those siding with the doves say there is no evidence that Iraq could or would use a nuclear weapon against the United States, that thousands of innocent Iraqis could be killed, that the region could be destabilized for years, that if the United States goes to war without specific U.N. approval the force of international law could be weakened, that the case for doing something about North Korea, also actively seeking to be a nuclear power, is more pressing.
Until Colin Powell's able and remarkably candid speech before the Security Council, with its accompanying spy satellite photos and audio tapes of Iraqi generals, there was a question of what the Bush Administration knew that it wasn't telling us.
Now we know that terrorists of many stripes wander freely around Iraq, which subsidizes some of them. We know that Saddam is desperately seeking uranium to make a nuclear bomb. We know that Iraq hides chemical weapons factories inside innocent-looking commercial establishments. We know that germ warfare facilities ride around on trucks. We know that families of scientists are threatened to keep them from talking. We know that all the promises Saddam Hussein made at the end of the gulf war were violated and that the weapons inspectors have been deceived from the beginning. We know that Iraqi commanders are authorized to use chemical weapons.
Most of all, we know that Saddam Hussein is determined to do everything to keep his weapons of mass destruction even if he destroys much of country in the process. Otherwise, he would have given them up in exchange for safeguarding his own life and fortune. And we fear he might sell weapons to terrorists.
We now know that the White House will pursue the end of the current regime in Iraq or it wouldn't have compromised many of its methods of intelligence by revealing them to the entire world. If the administration thought that Saddam Hussein would still be around in two years, it wouldn't have tipped him off that the United States knows about his mobile death labs.
It is difficult for men and women of reason to understand a man like Saddam Hussein. British writer Christopher Hitchens said at a discussion of ethics and public policy this past week that a man of logic would not have set the valuable Kuwaiti oil fields on fire as his troops pulled out, causing waste and untold environmental damage. What, Mr. Hitchens asks, if the next time Iraq irradiated the oil fields, making them unusable for years? What if he used a nuclear bomb against the Kurds?
But William Galston, director for philosophy and public policy at the University of Maryland, argues that possession of weapons of mass destruction is not proof of aggression, that going to war to pursue a zero tolerance for risk may be immoral, that killing out of the speculation of future harm is unwarranted.
If the United States attacks Iraq pre-emptively with no evidence that it is planning to attack the United States, will other nations use this as a rationale to attack their own enemies? Will the United States be seen as putting itself above the United Nations?
That, of course, is a twist on Mr. Powell's argument - if the United Nations does not enforce its own resolutions, its usefulness is gone. The burden now, says the White House, is on the Security Council to back up its vow to disarm Iraq. And is not the United States the major power that almost always ends up using its military might to be the enforcer?
The bottom line is that one man - the President of the United States - will make the decision to go to war. Generals won't. Congress won't. Diplomats won't.
The past few days made clear the President is on the verge of making the decision. The question now is the timing for when the strike will come.