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A Pentagon Top Gun opposed to the Iraqi military solution – a member of the growing number of disenchanted military officers who’ve kept their eye on the terrorist ball and still see al-Qaida & Co. as the main event – writes: “The 8 December deadline calling for weapons declaration is a White House-designed fail-safe booby trap. If Saddam says, ‘Iraq does not have Weapons of Mass Destruction!’ Bush and his rabid War Council will immediately declare this is a false statement that violates the recent U.N. resolution. Then expect: bombs away.”

“And,” he adds, “if Iraqi Air Defense continues to fire at our aircraft, the word is that the powers-that-be will – once they’re ready to go – announce an ‘act of war’ even though Saddam’s been shooting at our planes since 1991.”

Unless there’s some sort of modern miracle like the Red Sea swallowing up Saddam, our bombs will fall and our tanks will roll. Dozens of sources and other war indicators tell me our troops will ring in the new year on the outskirts of Baghdad as they begin the shift from war into a long, incalculably costly occupation. Don’t forget: 57 years after World War II, we still have about 75,000 troops in Europe even though there’s no enemy in sight and most Europeans have been chanting “Yankee go home!” for decades.

So contrary to all the Washington double talk about wanting inspections and doing the U.N. consensus thing, Iraq seems in for a violent change in senior management, even though squared-away insiders continue to insist that Saddam affords absolutely no clear and present danger to our national security.

While there’s no question that Saddam is a silver-screen-size villain who definitely deserves the worst, the world stage is filled with other serial-killer types also plotting how to inflict maximum pain on much of the Free World. Take the leader of North Korea, a country that might have just joined the Atomic Bomb Club, whose henchmen keep threatening to destroy South Korea and Japan – when they’re not getting off on their storm troops torturing and chopping up as many Americans as they can grab. Or the religious leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia, who’ve guaranteed their places in paradise by exporting shiploads of money, arms and wackos to almost every terrorist group going except for – as far as I know – the IRA.

But while none of these countries with heavy attitudes wishes us anything less than a crash landing, one way or another we’ve still managed to contain them without the war solution. Which makes a lot of sense.

Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, when evil creeps like Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev threatened to bury us, we bought time and saved lives by playing the containment card. The strategy worked: We won when the nuclear-armed Soviets went down just like so many great empires before them that grabbed too much turf and tried to support too big a military habit.

A lot of senior soldiers, active and retired, say we need to continue the same strategy with Iraq – where it will also eventually work – while we use our resources where it won’t: in the tricky fight against international terrorists who have no flagpoles to bomb, fleets to sink, aircraft to shoot down or armies to punch up. Who can keep delivering sucker punches without a worry about our putting the containment squeeze on them with embargoes or economic sanctions?

Should the president decide to stay the war course, hopefully at least a few of our serving top-uniformed leaders – those who are now covertly leaking that war with Iraq will be an unparalleled disaster – will do what many Vietnam-era generals wish they would have done: stand tall and publicly tell the America people the truth about another bad war that could well lead to another died-in-vain black wall. Or even worse.

Because if GWB doesn’t make sure we’ve battened down the home-front hatches before heading for Baghdad – which you can count on millions of Muslims viewing as an attack on the Islamic world – the invasion of Iraq will surely activate thousands of Arab kamikazes coiled like rattlesnakes, waiting to strike us from “sea to shining sea.”

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