ARLINGTON, Va. -- President Bush has captured the momentum in his war against terror. It's what his father once referred to in another context as "the Big Mo." He must not lose it or Saddam Hussein will slip through his fingers as the Iraqi dictator did with previous presidents, to the detriment of a lot of people, including U.S. citizens.
The president is bringing (or scaring) reluctant members of Congress to his view that Mr. Hussein cannot be reformed or transformed but must be removed. He's also winning over some reluctant editorial writers and former members of his father's administration, who have urged him not to "go it alone," or not to go at all. He's even convincing some European leaders of the necessity of his position.
This is not the time for the president to "go wobbly" and to buy the lie from Iraq, which, after resisting weapons inspections for four years, now claims on the eve of another conflict that it is willing to let them in "unconditionally."
Most people with a sense of recent history know Mr. Hussein has always had conditions. Predictably, and within hours of Iraq's "unconditional" letter to the United Nations, Ali Muhsen Hamid, the Arab League ambassador to London, added the condition that inspectors could only visit "military sites." That's because Mr. Hussein is strongly suspected to have hidden whatever it is he has to hide inside or under structures occupied by civilians.
We've gone down this alley before, only to be mugged by Mr. Hussein at the end of it.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton announced that Iraq had agreed to resume "unconditional cooperation" with the United Nations. In response, the United States suspended a threatened military attack, pledging that it remained "ready to strike" should Iraq fail to comply. Iraq failed to comply, eventually expelling weapons inspectors.
President Bush boldly confronted the United Nations last week, suggesting that the world body would become irrelevant should it fail to enforce numerous resolutions and sanctions pertaining to Iraq.
Saddam Hussein has failed to allow unfettered access to outside inspectors since the end of the Persian Gulf war. Eleven years was more than enough time for him to create and store all sorts of weapons of mass destruction, and more than enough time for the world to realize his promises are worthless.
In 1998, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution with no debate accusing Mr. Hussein of war crimes and calling on the United Nations to bring him to trial.
The more the United Nations and the United States dither, the more emboldened Mr. Hussein becomes and the closer he gets to holding free nations hostage when he has the elements in his possession that could wipe out by explosion, disease, or poison a major American, British or Israeli city.
Responding to Iraq's "offer" Sept. 16 to allow inspections, the White House issued a statement: "This is not a matter of inspections. It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions." The statement called Iraq's response a "tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action."
Four years ago, at the time Mr. Hussein supposedly re-opened his doors briefly to U.N. weapons inspectors, Ron Ben-Ishai, a leading Israeli military analyst, wrote in the mass circulation publication Yediot Ahronot: "For the first time, the United States ... publicly announced ... that it wants Saddam out of the way. ... It is exceedingly unusual for one country, especially a world power, to call for the ouster of another sovereign government. ...
"Washington has reached the conclusion that Saddam is a palpable threat to world and Middle East peace and that he must be removed. The United States further concluded that Saddam's oppressive policies toward his own people and his deceptive strategy vis-M-'-vis the international community made him lose his legitimacy as a head of state and also made him fair game."
That was true in 1998 and it remains true. Forget the inspections. The ultimatum should be: disarmament, or he's out of there. The Bush administration knows this and can be expected to keep its momentum going.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at www.calthomas.com.