Terrorists are wreaking havoc all around the globe, and it is obvious that Al Qaeda is alive and deadly, if not well.  Thus, the Bush administration is faced with a stark choice: Focus on protecting Americans by continuing the fight against terrorism, or risk American lives by setting the world further aflame with an unnecessary war against Iraq.

The world has become a very ugly place.  A murderous bombing in Bali, Indonesia.  Plans to hit U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia and Europe.  An attack on a French oil tanker off of Yemen.  A failed plot against Saudi oil facilities.  Shootings of American soldiers in Kuwait.  Bombings in the Philippines.  And the arrest of terrorist wannabes in Portland, Oregon, and Buffalo, New York.  CIA Director George Tenet warns: “You must make the assumption that al-Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas.”

Throughout the Muslim world, hatred for the West continues to grow.  Palestinians and Israelis are at war.  Fundamentalists made dramatic electoral gains in Pakistan and Turkey, both American allies.  A new report by the Council on Foreign Relations charges that Saudi Arabia, another ally, has done little to stop the funding of Al Qaeda.

In such a world, attacking Iraq would be like sloshing gasoline from the Mid-east to Southeast Asia.  It would not take much of a spark to ignite a bloody conflagration.

Why is the Bush administration fixated on Baghdad?  Obviously, Saddam Hussein is a bad man.  But the United States has routinely befriended nasty actors: Turkey has treated her Kurds no better than has Iraq, and a Christian woman would be better off living in Iraq than in Saudi Arabia.  Baghdad has attacked its neighbors, but it is contained and constrained, far weaker today than in 1990.  That is not likely to change anytime soon.

Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran in war and, perhaps, against the Kurds in civil war.  Worrisome?  Yes, but Saddam only used these weapons against adversaries who were defenseless.  By contrast, the United States possesses 6,000 nuclear warheads.

Saddam is trying to develop nuclear weapons.  He’s not alone, however.  North Korea has just admitted an ongoing program.  Iran and other states have pursued them.  Moreover, Saddam could not use nukes against the United States or Israel if he had them, lest he face swift retaliation.  Saddam is wicked, not suicidal.

Still, we are warned: He might use those weapons to preclude the United States from attacking him.  Yet a world in which Washington feels free to bomb any country at any time is frightening.  The United States spent the entire Cold War facing a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that constrained its actions.

The most serious argument is that Baghdad’s possession of nuclear weapons could result in even worse terrorism.  Al Qaeda, however, thinks little better of secular Arab dictators than of Western democracies.  Daniel Benjamin, a former staffer on the National Security Council, calls Iraq and Al Qaeda “natural enemies.”

Saddam is not likely to turn the crown jewels of any weapons program over to a group that he does not control—especially since doing so would risk exposure.  Indeed, he would be immediately suspect if “weapons of mass destruction” are ever used against the United States by terrorists—and the city of Baghdad would likely cease to exist.

The problem of loose nukes is far worse elsewhere.  Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and apparently aided the North Korean nuclear program.

Equally frightening, however, is what war with Iraq might bring.  If there were any circumstance in which Saddam would loose—on both America and Israel—whatever chemical or biological weapons he possesses, it would be if the United States attempted to remove him from power.

Moreover, any war would divert resources from fighting a resurgent Al Qaeda—at a time when, warns Tenet, “the [terrorist] threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer, the summer before Sept. 11.”

Attacking Iraq is also likely to reduce cooperation with Arab states and, perhaps, European and Asian ones as well.  Yet their help is needed in order to crack down on local terrorist cells and stem the flow of funds.

Even if the power of the “Arab street” is often overstated, the Pakistani election demonstrates Muslim anger against the West.  To oust Saddam while seeing the government of Pervez Musharraf fall to extremists would be a losing bargain.

And we must consider the aftermath of war in Iraq itself.  Even if a U.S. victory generated dancing in the streets of Baghdad, a permanent U.S. military occupation might be necessary to hold that artificial country together.

The struggle between Kurdish and Shiite separatists, squabbling expatriates, and various domestic factions, along with potential belligerent actions by Iran and Turkey, would be a wonder to behold.  Nation-building in Afghanistan would be simple in comparison.

In the end, the Bush administration is pursuing a strategy in which Iraq and the terrorist attacks of September 11 are mere-ly a convenient excuse.  The United States is to play an imperial role, crushing any government or movement that desires to escape Washington’s control.

It is a breathtaking agenda, outlined in a new White House strategy document—an agenda that means perpetual war, increased military outlays, a return to a Cold War-style security state, and perhaps even the reinstitution of conscription to man the necessary “nation-building” garrisons around the globe.  It is an agenda for an empire, not a republic.  And it is a strategy that guarantees a long-term, concerted campaign by other nations to counteract American power by means fair or foul.  India’s development of a nuclear arsenal is but one example.

Consider, also, China’s warming relations with India, Indonesia, and Russia.  Growing criticism from Europe.  Greater independence by Japan.  None of these countries wants to live in a world where everything Washington says goes.

There is no more fundamental duty for the government than to protect its people from outside threats.  Unfortunately, as President Bush himself admits, “We’ve got a long way to go” to defeat Al Qaeda.  Yet his administration is preparing to increase vastly the danger to Americans and their friends abroad.