Without access to U.S. intelligence it is hard to judge how grave a threat Saddam poses. But let's make some common-sense stipulations: First, the Iraqis have developed chemical and biological weapons and are trying to develop nuclear weapons; second, our government isn't certain about how close they are to having a usable nuclear weapon, but as of this moment they don't have one; third, Iraq has used chemical weapons in the past, though only on its own territory during the war with Iran and in efforts to repress the Kurds; and fourth, the Iraqi regime is sufficiently brutal internally and hostile externally--to some of its neighbors and to the United States--that we can't rule out its readiness to use such weapons again and more widely or to use nuclear weapons if and when it develops them. We also can't rule out (though there is as yet no evidence for) the transfer of weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi military or secret services to terrorist groups.

If these stipulations are plausible today, they have been plausible for a long time. They suggest how wrong it was to allow the first U.N. inspection system to collapse. There was a just and necessary war waiting to be fought back in the 1990s when Saddam was playing hide-and-seek with the inspectors. That would have been an internationalist war, a war of enforcement, and its justice would have derived, first, from the justice of the system it was enforcing and, second, from its likely outcome: the strengthening of the U.N. and the global legal order.

Though Iraq did not use weapons of mass destruction in the Gulf war, the peace agreement imposed after the war--which was authorized and, in part, implemented by the U.N.--included restrictions on the development and deployment of such weapons. As an aggressor state, Iraq was subjected to a set of constraints designed to make future aggression impossible. Imagine it as a state on parole, deprived of full sovereignty because of its previous behavior. This was a just outcome of the Gulf war, and the inspection system was its central feature.

Once the inspectors were in place, they revealed to the world how hard Saddam's government had been working on a variety of horrific weapons and how far along some of the work was. For a while, at least, the inspections seemed to be reasonably effective: A number of facilities and large quantities of dangerous materials were discovered and destroyed. But memory is short in political life, and commitments and coalitions are fragile. The urgencies of the war and its immediate aftermath receded, and some of Iraq's old trading partners, France and Russia most importantly, began to renew their ties. By the mid-'90s Saddam felt that he could safely test the will of the U.N. and the coalition of 1991, and so he began delaying the inspections or denying the inspectors access to the sites they wanted to visit. And he was right: There was no will to enforce the inspection system--not at the U.N. (which passed many resolutions but did nothing else), not in Europe, and not in the Clinton administration. The United States was prepared to use its airpower to maintain the "no-fly zones" in the North and South but was not prepared for a larger war.

If the inspectors had been forcibly supported, their employer, the U.N., would be much stronger than it currently is, and it would be very difficult for the United States or anyone else to plan a war without going through the U.N.'s decision-making procedures. But the failure of the '90s is not easy to rectify, and it doesn't help to pretend that the U.N. is an effective agent of global law and order when it isn't. Many states insist that they support the renewal of the inspection system, but so long as they are unwilling to use force on its behalf, their support is suspect. They profess to be defending the international rule of law, but how can the law "rule" when there is no law enforcement? When the Bush administration worries that the return of the inspectors would be (in Vice President Dick Cheney's words) "false comfort," it is reflecting a general belief, shared by Saddam, that our European allies would never agree to use force in order to ensure that those inspectors receive unfettered access to possible weapons-development sites. Indeed, until this last week, the Europeans were not seriously trying to renew the inspection system--probably because they were reluctant to face the enforcement question. U.N. negotiators dithered with Iraqi negotiators in a diplomatic dance that seems to have been designed for delay and ultimate failure. It still isn't clear that the dance is over.

Delay is dangerous because once Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and effective delivery systems, our threat to use force against Iraq will be far less plausible than it could be today. But as I have stipulated, Saddam doesn't have them yet. If the administration thinks that Iraq is already a nuclear power, or is literally on the verge of becoming one, then the past months of threatening war rather than fighting it would seem to represent, from the administration's perspective, something like criminal negligence. If there is even a little time before Iraq gets the bomb, the rapid restoration of the inspection system is surely the right thing to aim at--and immensely preferable to the "preemptive" war that many in Washington (including this magazine) so eagerly support.

In a speech at West Point a few months ago, President Bush made a case for the necessity and justice of preemptive war against Iraq. But in the absence of evidence suggesting not only the existence of Iraqi weapons but also their imminent use, preemption is not an accurate description of what the president is threatening. No one expects an Iraqi attack tomorrow or next Tuesday, so there is nothing to preempt. The war that is being discussed is preventive, not preemptive--it is designed to respond to a more distant threat. The general argument for preventive war is very old; in its classic form it has to do with the balance of power. "Right now," says the prime minister of country X, "the balance is stable; each of the competing states feels that its power is sufficient to deter the others from attacking. But country Y, our historic rival across the river, is actively and urgently at work developing new weapons, preparing a mass mobilization; and if this work is allowed to continue, the balance will shift, and our deterrent power will no longer be effective. The only solution is to attack now, while we still can." International lawyers and just-war theorists have never looked on this argument with favor because the danger to which it alludes is not only distant but speculative, whereas the costs of a preventive war are near, certain, and usually terrible. The distant dangers, after all, might be avoided by diplomacy, or the military work of the other side might be matched by work on this side, or country X might look for alliances with states possessing the deterrent power that it lacks. Whether or not war is properly the last resort, there seems no sufficient reason for making it the first.

But the old argument for preventive war did not take into account weapons of mass destruction or delivery systems that allow no time for arguments about how to respond. Perhaps the gulf between preemption and prevention has now narrowed so that there is little strategic (and therefore little moral) difference between them. The Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 is sometimes invoked as an example of a justified preventive attack that was also, in a sense, preemptive: The Iraqi threat was not imminent, but an immediate attack was the only reasonable action against it. Once the reactor was in operation, an attack would have endangered civilians living around it for many miles. So it was a question of now or never. A single attack could be effective now but not later; afterward, only a full-scale war could have prevented the Iraqi acquisition of nuclear weapons. But if this limited argument for preventive war applied to Israel in 1981, it does not apply to the United States in 2002. Iraq, after all, was already formally at war with Israel, and its hostility was visible, threatening, and immediate. Listening these days to Saddam's speeches, one might conclude that Israel still has a case for a preventive attack against Iraqi targets, and some of Iraq's other neighbors may also have a case: At least they confront a real threat. But I don't think that there is an American case, even if we claim to represent the neighbors--who have not authorized our representation and whose citizens would be radically at risk in any American war. In fact, the "now or never" example strengthens the argument for inspection: The first U.N. inspectors supervised the destruction of facilities and materials that would have been dangerous to bomb from the air; there is still time for them to do that again.

The administration's response, so far as I can make it out, has two parts. First, the inspectors will never get into Iraq, or will never be able to work effectively once they are in, unless there is a readiness to fight--and no one at the U.N. or in Europe is seriously ready. Inspection means delay, and again, delay is dangerous. Better to fight now. But "now" seems to be a fairly elastic term; clearly there are people in the Bush administration who think that the delays of the last months, and the likely delays of the coming months, are not so terribly dangerous. And the inspectors could probably be at work "now," in the more precise sense of that word, had there been a will to send them back.

Second, however effective they were, the inspectors would not overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. That sounds right, though their presence and their work would certainly weaken the regime. In any case, change of regime is not commonly accepted as a justification for war. The precedents are not encouraging: Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia all reflect the bad old days of cold war "spheres of influence" and ideologically driven military or clandestine interventions. Regime change can sometimes be the consequence of a just war--when the defeated rulers are moral monsters, like the Nazis in World War II. And humanitarian interventions to stop massacre and ethnic cleansing can also legitimately result in the installation of a new regime. But now that a zone of (relative) safety has been carved out for the Kurds in the North, there is no compelling case to be made for humanitarian intervention in Iraq. The Baghdad regime is brutally repressive and morally repugnant, certainly, but it is not engaged in mass murder or ethnic cleansing; there are governments as bad (well, almost as bad) all over the world.

The only compelling reason for targeting Saddam is the belief that he will never give up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. But even this is not persuasive. Faced with a unified international community committed to the enforcement of an inspections regime, with soldiers ready to move, Saddam would almost certainly suspend his pursuit--and the suspension would last as long as the commitment did. In any case, many other regimes around the world, including democratic regimes (such as India's), have developed or are trying to develop such weapons, so how can we be sure that future Iraqi rulers would not resume Saddam's project? If we are interested in the safety of Iraq's neighbors, inspection is a more reliable solution than regime change.

The right thing to do, right now, is to re-create the conditions that existed in the mid-'90s for fighting a just war. And we must do this precisely to avoid the war that many in the Bush administration want to launch. The Europeans could have reestablished these conditions by themselves months ago if they really wanted to challenge American unilateralism. No government in Baghdad could have resisted a European ultimatum--admit the inspectors by a certain date or else!--so long as the states behind the ultimatum included France and Russia, who have been Iraq's protectors, and so long as the "or else!" involved both economic and military action. Why didn't the Europeans do this? Bush spoke about a "difficult and defining moment" for the U.N., but it is really the Europeans who are being tested at this moment. So far, their conduct suggests that they have lost all sense of themselves as independent and responsible actors in international society. In an interview published in The New York Times on September 5, German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder made the amazing statement that when the U.S. government threatened war, it effectively blocked any effort to restore the inspection system. I am afraid that the truth is the exact opposite: There would be no effort at all without the threat. Four days after Schroeder's statement, French President Jacques Chirac called for the U.N. to reimpose the inspection system and to consider authorizing the use of force against Iraq if the inspectors were hindered in their work. It would have been a powerful sign of French independence had he said this to Le Monde in June or July. Now Chirac's proposal has to be viewed as nothing more than a last-minute effort to accommodate the crazy Americans. Still, the French proposal should be pursued. It has already helped to produce the Iraqi offer to readmit the inspectors. Chirac should now be challenged to insist on unfettered inspections even if Iraq begins introducing new caveats.

Convinced that France, Russia, and other European states (Great Britain being the only exception) are bent on appeasement, the United States hasn't moved on its own to restore the inspection system. But that is what we should do. Together, Europe and the United States could certainly impose the system that is needed, with the inspectors free to go wherever they want, on their own time schedule. This is a way to avoid, or at least to postpone, the war with Iraq. Let the inspectors go to work, but don't repeat the mistakes of the '90s; back them up with visible and overwhelming force.

I can't say right now if there is a good chance of getting the inspectors back. There are a lot of people eager to repeat the old mistakes. The real and only argument for war is not that war is the right choice, or the best available choice, but that there is no international commitment to actions short of war that require the threat of war. I think it is fair to say that many influential Europeans, from both the political class and the intelligentsia, would prefer a unilateral American war to a European readiness to fight--even if, to misquote Shakespeare, "the readiness is all," and war itself could be avoided.

So we may yet face the hardest political question: What ought to be done when what ought to be done is not going to be done? But we shouldn't be too quick to answer that question. If the dithering and delay go on and on--if the inspectors don't return or if they return but can't work effectively; if the threat of enforcement is not made credible; and if our allies are unwilling to act--then many of us will probably end up, very reluctantly, supporting the war the Bush administration seems so eager to fight. Right now, however, there are other things to do, and there is still time to do them. The administration's war is neither just nor necessary.

Michael Walzer is a contributing editor at The New Republic, professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, and the co-editor of Dissent.

By Michael Walzer