CHICAGO - In the usual sequence, a nation is presented with a powerful cause for war and then proceeds to fight.
After Sept. 11, Americans didn't need tortured explanations of why the United States should invade Afghanistan. But in the case of Iraq, the Bush administration began by making plans to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and realized only later that it might need to explain why. Judging from Vice President Dick Cheney's recent effort to rally support, it's still groping for a good excuse.
Mr. Cheney went before the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to announce that Mr. Hussein is a bad man who has chemical and biological agents and hopes to develop nuclear weapons as well. Nobody really denies that, but most of the world views the prospect without undue hysteria.
The vice president said it would be intolerable for Mr. Hussein to expand his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Why? Because "he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies, and against us."
If he were to get nukes, Mr. Hussein would "seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail," Mr. Cheney said.
But several countries have nuclear weapons, and none has found them very useful in making others do their bidding. Israel hasn't been able to force its neighbors to accept its treatment of the Palestinians. India hasn't coerced Pakistan to give up its claims to Kashmir. China hasn't succeeded in reclaiming Taiwan.
The argument is that Mr. Hussein is so reckless that he would be more successful. But what stops a nuclear power from carrying out a nuclear attack, or attempting nuclear blackmail, is not inborn self-restraint. It's the prospect of nuclear retaliation.
What evidence do we have that the Iraqi tyrant is influenced by such piddly considerations? Only his own behavior. We don't have to wonder if he can be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction. He already has been. During the Persian Gulf war, he had chemical and biological weapons that he could have used against Saudi Arabia, against Israel or against U.S. forces. But he knew the United States and Israel had nuclear missiles that could reach Baghdad, and himself.
The administration makes much of Mr. Hussein's use of poison gas against Iran and against Kurdish insurgents at home. But he did so on the assumption that his opponents couldn't respond with anything comparable. He won't have that assurance if he threatens a nuclear attack on us or our friends.
The New Republic heaps contempt on the notion that "there is the rational gassing of innocents and the irrational gassing of innocents," preferring "to insist that the use of weapons of mass destruction denotes a general derangement." Oh? Was President Truman deranged when he dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? If Mr. Hussein were crazy, he would have used his weapons of mass destruction in 1991 rather than swallow a humiliating defeat.
It's argued that a nuclear-armed Hussein could invade Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and force the United States to stay out by threatening to vaporize New York. If that strategy were feasible, though, the Soviet Union would have overrun Western Europe during the Cold War.
Besides, after more than a decade of economic sanctions, Iraq no longer has the offensive capability to mount any serious military campaign. For that, Mr. Hussein would need a lot of tanks, aircraft and other weapons.
But as University of Chicago strategist Robert Pape points out, "Unlike biological weapons, he can't use tanks if they're buried in the sand. He can use them only if they're out in the open and he conducts training with them."
And if he does that, we can easily blow them to pieces before he can use them.
If the problem were that Mr. Hussein could threaten his neighbors, you would expect his neighbors to be even more worried about him than we are. In fact, nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia are among the most vocal opponents of a U.S. invasion. Aside from Israel, other countries in the Middle East see him as no great danger.
So why does Mr. Hussein want weapons of mass destruction? For their only real function - deterring other countries from attacking him. If he had nuclear weapons, the United States would have to drop the idea of invading Iraq to overthrow its government. But if the only value of an Iraqi bomb is Mr. Hussein's self-preservation, it's hardly worth going to war over.
For months, we've been wondering why the administration has been so reluctant to make the case for invading Iraq. Now we have the answer: Because there isn't one.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.