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The Saddam skeptics should tell us: Which American city are they willing to bet that they're right?

12:00 AM, Sep 11, 2002 • By RICHARD LESSNER
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THE WAR SKEPTICS who allege that Iraq is contained, that Saddam Hussein poses no immediate threat to the United States, and that there is no evidence the Butcher of Baghdad is willing to share his weapons of mass destruction with such terrorists as al Qaeda, should be obliged to tell us something: Exactly which American city are they willing to bet that they're right?

Pittsburgh? Newark? Cheyenne? San Diego? Which city are the doubters willing to risk see turned into a smoking, irradiated atomic wasteland or a contaminated bioweapon no-man's land?

This is the potential consequence if the doubters are wrong, which is why President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and others assert that the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of any contemplated military action against Iraq.

It's a passing wonder how the war skeptics--including some top officials from the previous Bush administration, a few prominent congressional Democrats, and the usual blame-America-first peacenik claque--are so adept at reading Saddam Hussein's mind. These mentalists apparently are able to discern the Iraqi dictator's intentions. And they're willing to bet an American city and the lives of thousands of Americans on the accuracy of their telepathic abilities.

Risks can be judged only by capabilities, not intentions. No one knows, or can know, Saddam Hussein's intentions. Not to a metaphysical certainty. We can make some informed judgments based on Saddam's past behavior, but ultimately we cannot know the dictator's mind.

It's true, as the skeptics note, that Saddam is not suicidal, that he is not so appallingly stupid as to launch a direct attack on America or American interests from Iraqi soil using weapons of mass destruction. Such a foolhardy attack would invite immediate, massive retaliation.

So the wily Saddam would be more likely to use terrorists to mount such an attack, thereby preserving deniability. Anti-American regimes in the Middle East have been employing terrorist groups to wage low-level warfare against America for years. The pattern of behavior is already well established.

Would the United States respond massively against Iraq were a biological warfare attack launched on an American city if we had no "smoking gun" proving Saddam was behind it? Look at the difficulty investigators are having identifying the culprit of last year's anthrax attacks. Tracing such an attack back to Iraq would be extremely difficult.

Not even a smoking American city necessarily would constitute a smoking gun. If a small, dirty nuclear device detonated without warning in an American port city, how would we prove it came from Iraq? The same doubters who today demand "smoking gun" evidence on Saddam before any pre-emptive military action is taken would raise the same demands in the aftermath of a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction.

So the potential of Saddam seeking to use terrorist "cut-outs" to attack America is not an entirely fanciful possibility ginned up by warmongers. If September 11 taught us anything, it is that those who hate America and are willing to do us harm will go to great lengths to accomplish their evil designs. Can anyone doubt that had Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda possessed weapons of mass destruction, they would have been used on September 11 instead of hijacked airliners?

The question for the war skeptics is this: Is America prepared to bet they're right and risk another September 11?

Reasons can always be found to justify inaction. An attack on Iraq could inflame the Islamic world and turn the region into a cauldron. The Arab street might arise against America. Oil supplies could be disrupted. It would delay settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Military action would destabilize friendly pro-Western regimes.

I doubt that any of these potential consequences is likely to occur--I believe an attack on Iraq will pay universally beneficial dividends--but there is at least some small but measurable chance that taking out Saddam would yield one or more of these things in some varying degree. Even so, all of them are utterly inconsequential compared with the risk of an even more deadly reprise of last September's atrocity.

Those temporizers who urge caution and inaction are asking the rest of us to take the bet that they're right. It's a wager America cannot afford to make. The cost is simply too great if it turns out the appeasers are wrong. I, for one, am more concerned about a smoking ruin in an American city than a smoking gun pointing to Saddam.

Richard Lessner is the former editorial page editor of the Union Leader of Manchester, New Hampshire. He is currently executive director of a Washington-based lobbying organization.