He may be Satan incarnate but Saddam Hussein appears to be doing a great service to American citizens. It appears that he is giving new life to the democratic process in America. As early as June of this year, President Bush and his closest advisors appeared committed to a preemptive war against Saddam’s Iraq without seeking the approval of American citizens or the U.S. Congress. This arrogance has been suitably rewarded with a remarkable upsurge of public efforts questioning not only the wisdom of a war but also the constitutional authority of the president to initiate an attack on Iraq.

It is in this context that Elaine Scarry asks extremely important and timely questions about the role of citizens in defending our nation against violence in a world far different than the one known to the drafters of the U.S. Constitution. While she explores this theme through the failure of defense on September 11, her insight into the continuing importance of the Constitution’s requirements for consent can be easily applied as we anticipate our actions in Iraq. Scarry’s call for a democratic form of self-defense provides an important springboard for a larger debate about national security and citizenry’s consent to the role of the U.S. military in the world today.

In truth, the democratic process has been badly short-circuited ever since September 11, 2001, when the president and his principal advisors committed the United States to a “war on terrorism.” The rising level of resistance to the president and his bellicose advisors is all the more remarkable because our leaders have cast the war on terrorism in stark terms: either you are for them or you are against American security. Reasonable debate—the kind that Elaine Scarry invites—to consider alternatives to preemptive military action as the primary means of dealing with international terrorism has not been welcomed. Without challenge, the president has pursued a single-minded approach: the military budget for 2003 increased by $48 billion (up fourteen percent) while no significant additions were made to funds for the State Department to pursue diplomatic initiatives or initiate helpful foreign aid programs.

Fortunately, debate eventually emerged despite this climate. Even Representative Dick Armey, the arch-conservative House Majority Leader, has urged caution, joined by former national security advisor General Brent Scowcroft; former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke; and the former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni. Vice President Dick Cheney’s hawkish speech to a veterans’ group in August—in which he categorically committed the United States to depose Saddam Hussein through military action—has further stimulated political dissent both within the United States and from abroad.

We must trust the democratic process to determine the wisest course of action in this perilous situation. Americans (and the world community) need to ask why the United States considers it is justified to initiate hostilities against Iraq in blatant violation of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. How will deposing Saddam Hussein bring an end to international terrorism? Will Iran be next on the White House list? Or will it be Syria? Does the United States intend to exploit its superpower role everywhere by initiating preemptive military actions whenever we assert that a threat exists to America’s security?

Elaine Scarry provides a roadmap for the debate by focusing on the need for citizen consent and questioning all uses of nuclear weapons; but it will also be critical to consider a number of practical alternatives to war, including diplomatic initiatives. The primary one is a strong U.S. leadership in the U.N. Security Council to revitalize a comprehensive inspection regime in Iraq. As I write in mid-September, following the president’s U.N. address, such action seems to be bearing fruit. But even if it fails due to Iraqi duplicity and obstruction, it will likely rally support for U.N. military action by demonstrating that Iraq is determined to hide unlawful efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction that threaten world peace.

Next, the debate must explore the linkage between the putative Iraqi threat and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration argues that strong U.S. action against Iraq will demonstrate forceful U.S. leadership in the region and actually facilitate progress in resolving the Palestinian issue. Critics charge in reply that a war against Iraq will harden opposition among Islamic states and further radicalize terrorist elements in their intifada against Israel and the United States.

A number of other issues regarding the actual conduct of any war against Iraq lie within the jurisdiction of the Pentagon, where public participation is not possible or appropriate. Nevertheless, before we attack, the problems of a post-war occupation must be addressed openly and agreement reached that America is prepared to carry out the onerous task of maintaining order within Iraq and defending its territorial integrity after we have brought down Saddam Hussein. It will be a terrible irony if we “win the war” but “lose the peace” by a failure to defend the nation whose government we have just destroyed. Security and stability throughout the Middle East require the continued existence of Iraq within its present borders; if we unilaterally initiate the attack, without U.N. authorization or support, we will be forced to perform the costly, dangerous task of an occupying power unaided for a prolonged period. Former secretary of the Navy and Vietnam veteran James Webb has asked if we would be willing to perform these duties for thirty years, or longer. He also noted that a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq might weaken our ability to control international terrorism in many other regions such as Africa, Asia, and South America.

In summary, some critical questions need to be asked and answered before any decision concerning a war on Iraq can be made wisely. A searching debate in the best traditions of American democracy must lead to that decision. Saddam Hussein may be contributing to that debate unwittingly but, as a concerned and responsible citizen, Elaine Scarry may take great satisfaction in her valuable efforts to stimulate and inform the debate.