The recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings highlight a development that ought to have inspired a great public debate but hasn’t. From the very beginning, the Bush administration has been intent on waging war against Iraq, and by now nearly the whole country seems resigned to a U.S. attack. Within the government, discussion concerns matters of timing, strategy, mobilization of military resources, provision of bases, and so forth. Hardly any prominent person has questioned the attack’s underlying rationale.

Yet the justification for this war remains extremely problematic. “If we do this,” said Anthony Cordesman, military guru and Iraq specialist, “it will in many ways be our first pre-emptive war. We will not have a clear smoking gun.” Once upon a time, such an attack would have been labeled naked aggression; nowadays, it’s swallowed with ease as the Bush Doctrine. Is everybody really in favor of a unilateral, unprovoked U.S. assault on a small, faraway country that has never attacked us and does not now pose a serious threat to us?

Ever since the build-up prior to the Gulf War, the U.S. government has undertaken to demonize Saddam Hussein. No herculean effort has been required along these lines, because by all accounts Saddam is, in fact, a murderous thug who rules Iraq with an iron fist. It stretches the limits of credulity, however, to accept characterizations of him as another Hitler. A bit of searching might have turned up even more despicable leaders in other countries—Kim Il Jong, for example, whose principal occupation seems to be starving to death the North Korean people.

The presence of a murderous thug in control of a small country is hardly front-page news. Such rulers are dime a dozen. Yet the United States does not stand on the verge of attacking all of them. What’s so special about Saddam?

It is claimed, of course, that his government actively seeks to develop weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, and nuclear. Again, however, the same claim might be made about many countries. Moreover, many of those countries have already succeeded in developing such weapons. Yet the United States does not propose to launch attacks on India, Pakistan, China, or Russia, not to speak of France or the United Kingdom.

The story line seems to be that Saddam Hussein not only seeks to obtain weapons of mass destruction but, once he has them, he will immediately use them against the United States. This nearly-always-unspoken assumption, when brought into the open, has less than overwhelming persuasive power. Why would Saddam take the assumed action? What would he gain by it?

Well, most likely, he would gain less than nothing. As former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Saddam understands that making first use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies would guarantee his own destruction. Whatever else one may think about Saddam, no one can deny that he has been a wily leader, keenly concerned about his personal survival. He hardly qualifies as a potential suicide bomber.

Nobody has presented any evidence that the Iraqis now possess weapons of mass destruction or the effective means, such as ballistic missiles, to deliver such weapons over long distances. Senator Richard Lugar himself admits, “We haven’t found the evidence.” During the Gulf War, when the Iraqis were under ferocious attack, the Scud missiles they fired at Israel were equipped only with conventional explosives, not with the chemical or biological warheads that everybody feared Saddam might use. Why would he act more recklessly in the future, when not under attack, than he did during the massive attack on his country in 1991?

At the recent Senate hearings, Senator Lincoln Chafee identified the crucial issue when he said, “the key here is the existence of the threat. And there’s some dispute.”

But is there any genuine dispute? All that’s been shown is that Saddam, like many other national leaders, is working to develop weapons of mass destruction, and even that part of the story has been spun out of proportion by the administration and its friends in the media. There’s many a slip, especially in a small, impoverished country such as Iraq, between working to develop such weapons and succeeding in developing them as well as the effective means of delivering them against the United States—leaving aside the critical question of Iraqi motivation for such a suicidal attack.

The truth of the matter seems to be that the Bush administration, apparently for reasons of political expediency, is obsessed with defeating Saddam’s regime. To achieve this desired end, it is eager to launch a gigantic attack on a country that the United States first devastated in 1991 and has been provoking with aggressive overflights of Iraqi territory and sponsorship of anti-Saddam factions and intriguers for more than a decade. It’s almost as if the principal grievance of the Bush administration is sheer frustration, piqued perhaps by the president’s yearning to vindicate his father by finishing the job that George H. W. Bush did not finish. Who knows? Given the manifestly shoddy case the administration has made for its proposed war, one can only fall back on speculation about its real motives.

In 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams declared that this country “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Now, however, it seems that doing so, by means of aggressive “pre-emptive” attacks, is to be the government’s official policy. If the American people accede to this policy, we will suffer the fate that Adams himself feared would ensue. “The fundamental maxims of [U.S] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force,” he said. America “might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”