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Wednesday, November 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey/Times editorial columnist

Anger and fear don't justify war with Iraq

The audience in the Plymouth Congregational Church's hall was elderly, earnest and liberal. Four panelists had been invited to talk about war with Iraq, and whether it could be justified. I argued that it could not.

Perhaps the threat of war is only to force Saddam Hussein to accept inspectors. If that is what George W. Bush has been doing all along, the war resolution was a mere chess move, with Congress the pawns. One of us thought so — a telling comment on what form of government he thought he was under. The rest of us took the vote at face value: It was time to discuss the morality of war, because our government was on the verge of starting one.

Gary Chamberlain of Seattle University presented the Christian theory of the just war. It says, first, that the purpose of war be defensive only; second, that the scale of bloodletting be no greater than needed; third, that the war benefit humanity by more than it costs; and fourth, that it be a last resort, undertaken in a mournful and reflective spirit.

There is more to it than that, but that is the gist of it, and it no more allows a war on Iraq than a war on Idaho.

Herewith my case, a bit more ordered than from the podium a week ago.

Iraq has not attacked any of its neighbors in 12 years. It is not attacking the United States. It could not occupy and defend one square mile of American territory or defend any part of its own against us. It has no allies. Its airspace is controlled by our air force. It is weak and poor, its economy and public health wrecked by Saddam's militarism and 12 years of our embargo.

Last time America fought Iraq, the ratio of dead Iraqis to dead Americans was on the order of hundreds to one. It was a slaughter.

Why do it again? Because Americans imagine that Saddam Hussein may develop a nuclear weapon and set it off in the United States. Does he have such a weapon? No. If he did, he would say so, as North Korea has, if only to get Bush off his back. If Saddam had a nuclear weapon, would he set it off here? Only if he were nuts.

Saddam Hussein is no more insane than his idol, Joseph Stalin, who also had the bomb and didn't drop it. Deterrence stopped Saddam from using chemical weapons on American, British or French troops in 1991, and deterrence has stopped him from invading anyone for 12 years. The CIA did a study of Saddam and concluded that he would use a nuclear weapon, if he had one, if he were being invaded and his back were to the wall. Indeed, Saddam now threatens to attack Israel in just that circumstance.

Why do it?

Conquest of Iraq would not be a war for oil, as is darkly suggested by the left. The United States is not going to steal Iraq's oil. If America occupies Iraq, it will let in a legion of TV reporters, social workers, diplomats and Iraqi carpetbaggers who will raise the alarm on any theft of Iraqi petroleum. And rightfully so. Iraq will need every petrodollar.

Nor would a war be about "access" to oil. Access to oil is created by the ability to pay for it. America has plenty of access to oil right now.

Why, then, start a war? Because among Americans there is anger at the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, and an unfamiliar fear of terrorism. Our government has not been able to find Osama bin Laden. But it can find Iraq.

Americans yearn for an enemy to be cut up with razors, and Saddam Hussein is an enemy all Americans know. Thrashing Iraq will settle old scores and save the family face of Bush. It has already sent the Democrats into the wilderness.

Bill Clinton must be beside himself. He played the game of war, but his bets were all small ones. As panelist David Brewster noted, George W. Bush bets big.

Would an invasion of Iraq be a just war? That is a question for the Plymouth Congregational Church, Seattle University and other places of tradition and thought. Washington, D.C., is focused on other things.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com.

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