During the recent Senate hearings on the Iraqi crisis, questions were raised concerning the argument that the United States should go to war in order to dismantle Saddam Hussein's potential for nuclear capability.

In particular, my friend and associate Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, noted that when the United States was threatened more directly with nuclear weapons by the far more powerful and dangerous Soviets or Chinese, it refrained from engaging in preventive warfare."Moreover," Brzezinski said, "Israel already has nuclear weapons and can thus deter Iraq, while the United States certainly has the power to both deter or destroy Iraq."

Since deterrence had worked in the past, he said, he could not see why thousands of Americans should die now to ensure that Iraq does not acquire a nuclear capability at some future point.

I fully agree with Brzezinski that the possibility of Iraq's achieving at some point a nuclear capability is not an adequate reason for President Bush now to initiate the use of comprehensive military means against Saddam Hussein.

However, to raise the question of whether Israel's nuclear capacity can deter Iraq's aggressive intentions is unhelpful. To suggest such a deterrent role for Israel is to play into Saddam's hands; it is he who is attempting to divert attention from his seizure of Kuwait to the Arab-Israeli question.

In light of this suggestion, I think it is useful to examine the deterrent role of U.S. nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

More than 40 years ago, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson and others of us saw early on that the role of nuclear weapons was primarily to deter their use by the Soviet Union, not to compensate for weaknesses in other aspects of U.S. and allied power. But both the Soviet Union and the U.S. have long believed that proliferation of nuclear weapons among other nations tends to decrease international security and stability.

The British, French, Chinese, and now the Israelis, South Africans, Indians and a few others have believed that there would be an increase in their prestige by virtue of being a nuclear power. However, any hope they may have had that there would be a usable increment to their strategic military power was illusory; the United States and the Soviet Union together still possess more than 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Even under the most ambitious of the strategic arms control agreements now under negotiation, that percentage would not be reduced below 90 percent.

The idea that Iraq could have a strategically meaningful nuclear capability within the next 50 years is not credible. Nevertheless, I believe the sanctions against Iraq should not be lifted until the U.N. is assured that Iraq's facilities for the production of weapons of mass destruction have been dismantled, and procedures for continuing U.N. inspection of those facilities have been put in place.

The current U.N. Security Council resolutions do not call for such action by Iraq, but I doubt that the principal members of the Security Council would have reason to object to such a provision if and when Iraq demonstrates it is willing to work out a final settlement.

The more difficult question is that of Israel's nuclear capabilities. I, for one, do not know even approximately what those capabilities are.

When I was deputy secretary of defense, I informed the Israelis that the United States would not deliver to them the latest version of our F-4 fighter-bomber until they permitted us to inspect their nuclear facilities at Demona. I was overridden by higher U.S. political authority and told not to continue that insistence.

At that time, I considered it dangerous and unacceptable for the major power in an alliance to permit one of the lesser members to be in a position that could involve the alliance as a whole in a war it did not intend. I continue to believe that that general principle is correct.

But the question of Israel's nuclear capabilities cannot and should not be addressed until after Saddam has acceded to the Security Council resolutions. Even then, resolving the issue of Israel's nuclear capacity will require patience and reciprocal action by Arab and Moslem nations and factions, not just concessions by Israel.

Implicit in the issue is the idea that the United States might welcome the prospect of Israel's nuclear weapons deterring a post-crisis Iraq from following an expansionist role in the Middle East. How would Israel be expected to do this? By the actual use of nuclear weapons against Iraq?

I can't imagine a more certain way to assure worldwide revulsion toward Israel. If that is not intended, is Israel expected to deter Iraq merely by the existence of its nuclear stockpile, or is it expected to threaten Iraq with nuclear destruction if it fails to comply with Israel's demands? In either case, the possibility that Saddam Hussein would comply approaches zero, thus nullifying any deterrent effect of Israel's nuclear arsenal.

1990, New Perspectives Quarterly

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