Marshall Matt Dillon walks into the center of the dusty main street of Dodge City. At the other end of the Old West town stands a gunslinger. Dillon's hand hovers just above his holstered six-gun. The gunslinger draws, but Dillon's move is faster. A blast from his Colt and peace is restored.

That scene that began each episode of the weekly series Gunsmoke is familiar to many who turned on a television during the two decades it was on the air between 1955 and 1975. . Western lawmen like Marshall Dillon have an iconic status in American mythology that resonates today as the United States pins on the sheriff's badge and heads out to tame the world's evil creatures.

The image of the single shot -- a quick, overwhelming strike into Iraq -- taking care of the bad guy who is terrorizing the world appeals to the Bush administration.

But there is one crucial difference -- unlike Marshall Dillon, and every cinematic cowboy hero who faced off against evil in a gunfight, the United States is proposing to draw first.

It violates a basic precept of American warfare -- like those Western heroes, the United States doesn't land the first blow, it only strikes back. This is a tradition that goes back to the town square in Lexington, Mass., where British troops fired on Continental soldiers and goes up through Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor.

So important is this concept that some of those first strikes have smacked of contrivance. A young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln challenged the Polk administration to identify the spot of American soil where American blood was shed, a fight that provided the pretext to invading Mexico. Similar doubts were raised about the explosion of the battleship Maine before the Spanish-American War and the attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese that cleared the way for all-out war.

But the point is that it has always been necessary before launching a war at least to contend that the United States -- or its ally -- was the victim of aggression before launching a war.

But since it first began focusing on Saddam Hussein and his armaments, the Bush administration has tried to make the case that international law endorses the United States making the first strike -- in part because Iraq is in violation of United Nations resolutions and also because if Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, it would be like the baddest gunslinger in the West showing up in town with a Gatling gun, so he should be taken out by any means possible.

There have been attempts to link Hussein with al-Qaida, but none argue seriously that Iraq was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. The case for war clearly hinges on the potential for problems.

This apparent violation of such a long-standing American tradition disturbs many.

"I think we have to be very careful in explaining why Iraq is a distinctive and unique case," says Steven R. David, an expert on security issues at the Johns Hopkins University. "We don't want to create an international norm that a country that is uncomfortable with another country can simply attack. In India and Pakistan, the Middle East, in all sorts of situations we do not want to encourage this kind of attack."

Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development in the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that it was the violation of this doctrine by Hussein that caused such widespread support for the first gulf war in 1991.

"Iraq had invaded Kuwait," he says. "Think of all those countries that really didn't like America very much, indeed who feared America to some extent -- including countries like Syria -- that ended up saying to Iraq, 'No, we intend to join this coalition.'"

Telhami contends that is because, at the end of the Cold War, "the worst thing that could happen would have been to allow a powerful state to establish the norm of getting away with attacking a weaker state that was perceived or claimed to be a threat to its interests.

"Now we see exactly the same fear going the other way," he says. "That's the real issue that explains why many countries are very much reluctant to join with the United States -- they see it as establishing a new norm that they don't like."

Could backfire

Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago, agrees.

"If someone asks me if Iraq is a country that would benefit from a regime change, I would say, yes. Should there be an international role in that change? Possibly," he says. "But it must be done very carefully, not in violation of the United Nations charter or of the sovereignty of nations. If it is not done by international decision, multilaterally, it will be a terrible precedent that will be used against the United States in the future, again and again."

Telhami says the United States may gain some allies simply because they do not want to see this precedent set. "They will ultimately provide the U.S. with the cover by joining in or supporting a U.N. resolution in order not to make it a norm of the U.S. going in alone."

Whether or not the United States has made the case that Iraq is such a threat to international stability that it merits setting such a precedent is a judgment call. Many in the Bush administration say the smoking gun should not be a mushroom cloud.

But Louis J. Cantori, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that the U.S. pressure has worked, that inspections show Iraq has no nuclear weapons and any chemical or biological ones are contained and no threat.

"Why disturb something that's working?" he says. "The situation is in fact, objectively speaking, very satisfactory."

U.S. action 'upsetting'

John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, agrees.

"Hussein does seem to be an unusually dangerous political figure, but he is thoroughly contained," he says. "There is no question that he does not have nuclear weapons capability. He has possibly squirreled away some chemical weapons and biological agents somewhere, but it would be suicidal for him to ever display them, much less use them.

"To initiate a war to change a regime because it hasn't proven that it doesn't have weapons that the inspectors admit they have not found is outside the bounds that anybody would consider reasonable," Steinbruner says. "To see the United States behaving this way is quite upsetting."

David, who has been a hawk in the war on terrorism, is not as adamant but he also has doubts.

"I think [President] Bush has to do a better job of making the case for why now," he says. "I am somewhat sympathetic to that case, but I don't think it has been made."

It is hard to argue that Iraq is unique. There have been other brutal dictators, and other aggressive regimes with weapons of mass destruction. Consider a country that spent years as an international pariah, violating many U.N. resolutions, brutally oppressing its own people, illegally occupying a neighboring land, sponsoring military adventures in several other nearby states while secretly developing a range of biological and nuclear weapons. That would be white-ruled South Africa in the apartheid years of the mid-1980s. Yet few proposed a pre-emptive strike to disarm that regime and free its people.

"It's like real estate -- location, location, location," says David of the difference. "Where this guy [Hussein] is, there is two-thirds of the oil in the world there in the Persian Gulf. He can bring a lot of that down."

David says it is wrong to argue that an attack on Iraq would be pre-emptive, like Israel's first strike in 1967 against the massed armies of its neighbors; that was designed to gain an advantage in a conflict that was imminent.

"Pre-emptive means there is an imminent strike coming from the other side in a matter of minutes or hours," he says. "No one is anticipating Iraq striking at the United States tomorrow."

He terms the proposed U.S. action preventative, using as an analogy the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor -- but with the United States in the role of Japan.

"Japan felt over time the United States was going to be an adversary, an obstacle to its efforts to expand in Asia, so they launched the strike," he says. "That was very much a preventative act of war, not a pre-emptive strike."

'Could fuel terrorism'

Keeping any Iraqi weapons out of the hands of the types of terrorists who launched the Sept. 11 attacks is an obvious justification, but many argue that the war would anger so many in the Arab world that it would increase the danger of terrorism.

"It could fuel terrorism, not fight it," says Telhami.

But David warns that having confronted the gunfighter, there is a danger of backing down.

"We can't keep doing this, we can't keep bringing in hundreds of thousands of troops into the gulf region," he says. "The Arab world wants to make sure we are serious about removing Hussein from power. If we back down now, they will say, 'Forget it. We've got to live with this guy. You get to go home, we've got to live here.' ...

"It's a horrible risk," David says. "We're in a very interesting situation. There are tremendous risks in action and tremendous risks in inaction."

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