EVER SINCE President Bush announced his willingness to undertake "preemptive" or "preventive" wars, the chorus has grown of those who insist that war must invariably be the last resort. At the core of this argument is the conviction that war is terrible and, therefore, ethically unjustifiable unless it is the only way left in which to pursue an important aim. The preferred method, of course, is diplomacy, but there are many who would argue that economic and other sanctions are more justifiable than war and must have failed before war can justly begin. There are a number of practical objections to this belief, but they are not the chief objections. For it is frequently the case--and clearly so with regard to Iraq today--that waiting until all other avenues have been exhausted is unethical.

In almost every crisis that leads to war there comes a point at which it is plain that war is likely. At that point, both sides begin to consider what preparations they need to make to go to war, and often they begin those preparations. The warrior's art includes recognizing the moment at which an attack would carry the maximum likelihood of success. If we allow our soldiers to strike at that moment, we give them the ability to take the enemy by surprise, attacking him at a time or in a place or manner for which he is unprepared to respond. Surprise creates the conditions for successful military campaigns. The casualties are generally lower for both sides, moreover, because enemy soldiers attacked by surprise are much more likely to desert or surrender than are those who feel themselves ready for an attack.

If, on the contrary, our military is required to wait on an open-ended basis while diplomacy and other avenues are "explored," the likelihood of achieving surprise is dramatically reduced. What is more, the enemy is given time to prepare himself to fight, digging into defensive positions, pre-designating targets for strikes by artillery, missiles, or weapons of mass destruction, training, stocking up on supplies, and so forth. As time goes on and the enemy observes our own military preparations, he gains an ever fuller understanding of what forces we intend to bring to bear and how we may use them.

Another problem with waiting for diplomacy to fail is that soldiers, sailors, and airmen cannot maintain the highest level of war-readiness indefinitely. There is a psychological dimension to this problem, in that daily expectation of an event that does not come is both exhausting and numbing. There is also a practical dimension. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen who are standing by for an operation are rarely able to continue full-scale combat training. Without that training, their combat skills begin to degrade. Every day that goes by after the best moment to strike has passed and before combat begins is likely to degrade the combat capabilities of our troops.

The result is that we provide the enemy with a much greater ability to hurt us. And that hurt is measured in the lives of our troops in the field lost because of delay in the attack. To be sure, if there is a prospect that diplomacy might succeed, the likelihood of that success must be weighed against the probability that more lives will be lost if war is delayed. The ethics of the situation thus are less clear cut than proponents of "letting diplomacy take its course" like to claim.

There are other important reasons to fear delay in any situation in which it is unlikely that non-military means will secure our aims. First, there is the danger to civilians. In the case of Iraq, as Saddam digs in, he is working to intermingle his forces, command bunkers, and weapon sites with the civilian population to complicate our targeting and increase civilian casualties despite our best efforts to avoid them.

In cases such as Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, our delay in acting allowed atrocities to continue long after they could have been stopped. Imagine the lives that could have been saved had we intervened in each of those places when it became clear that diplomacy would not work quickly. When genocide is underway, it is immoral to wait a moment longer than necessary before acting decisively.

Still another reason to fear delay is that it leaves the initiative in the hands of our enemies. In the case of North Korea, for instance, the cost could be very high. By waiting while diplomacy takes its course, we allow our enemies to perceive the changing balance of military force and probabilities of success and, if they are so inclined, to choose an opportune moment to attack. In such a case, they may be able to achieve surprise, inflict defeat, and change the situation to their advantage before we can respond. The fact that we will ultimately defeat just about any state we might fight today is not a good enough answer from the ethical perspective. We must weigh the price of delay. We must ask how many lives waiting will cost.

This is not to say that whenever there is a chance of war, we should attack at the most militarily propitious moment. There are occasions when demonstrations of force or limited build-ups can create the conditions for successful diplomacy. We must never lock ourselves into military action or exclude the possibility of a peaceful settlement simply in order to ensure the best military conditions for an attack.

Some conflicts, however, are irreducible. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, was defeated and driven out in 1991, and committed itself in that year to a series of binding international agreements to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction and allow international agencies unfettered access to verify its compliance. That it has not complied with those agreements over the intervening 12 years is beyond doubt. No responsible person can claim that Iraq has disarmed.

Iraq has defied the international community, moreover, in the face of crippling economic sanctions and even the limited use of military force. The possibility that Saddam will see reason, or that someone in his carefully purged and watched inner circle will decide to remove him and then comply with the agreements he made, is minuscule.

Unless a miracle occurs or we lose our will, this war will come. Fighting it without surprise, at the enemy's convenience, may prolong it and cost the lives of many more Americans and allies and Iraqis. In this situation, the time to strike should be determined in accord with military expediency and on no other timetable. Only that course of action is ethically defensible.

Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and the co-author, with Donald Kagan, of "While America Sleeps."

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