Even before the shooting starts, America's super-heated initiative in the Persian Gulf has generated a bitter taste, an air of deepening regret.
Somehow, amid all the clenched presidential fists and the stern talk of clocks ticking down, against all the video clips of troops resolutely practicing their craft in the desert, there comes the sense of titanic decisions being made on little more than primitive instinct.It may appear that a war to pull Iraq's fangs was inevitable all along. After all, Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant; armed to the teeth, he imperils all his neighbors.
But in fact, war almost certainly was not inevitable; and as Americans hold their breath in a mixture of dread and fascination, there is value in trying to see this tragic situation in a broader context.
This context contains at least five crucial elements, all interrelated. Had any of the five been vigorously pursued by American administrations before August, we might well not find ourselves in such a fateful predicament as Jan. 15 draws near.
The first element that deserved a higher priority was a broad peacekeeping strategy - especially one focused on the Middle East - and a well-honed vision of how, in the postwar era, America might try to keep conflict from exploding.
Perhaps, given Washington's distractions in Eastern Europe and its necessary focus on enormous changes in the Soviet Union, it was unrealistic to look for grand new policy designs in the Middle East.
Yet it would have been useful if nations of the West and the Middle East could have explored ideas for breaking the region's cycles of fear, terrorism and repression.
In the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, Iraq enjoyed ample American support, evidently premised on the theory that the enemy of America's enemy is its friend.
A second element of a broad gulf context involves America's unquenchable oil thirst. As the oil shocks of the mid-1970s faded from memory, our dependence on imported oil, modestly priced, resumed.
Had Washington resolutely been pushing policies of energy conservation, setting energy taxes high enough to make fuel prices reflect fuel's true cost, Iraq might never have acquired its present leverage over the economies of the West.
A third missing element in U.S. policy - and a crucial element - could be defined as efforts to grasp the meaning and values of Islam, in all their power and complexity.
However strange and rigid the Islamic faith may appear to the West, it is at once the value scheme, social code and political credo of 700 million Muslim adherents. What diplomats and scholars have come to understand of the pride, dignity and defiance that distinguish Islam has seldom weighed heavily on the minds of American presidents.
And, while nothing in Islam can excuse the defiant aggression of a Saddam Hussein, earlier efforts to plumb his thinking could have left the world with a strikingly different end game in Kuwait.
A fourth missing element may be the bleakest of all: the advanced world's insistence on trading oil dollars for lethal hardware across the Middle East. Saddam, absent the tanks, fighters and missiles that he has bought and otherwise wangled from a host of eager supplies, would not conceivably represent anything like his present threat. America and the other nations that have fed this insatiable appetite now have largely themselves to blame.
The fifth missing element, central to any broader Kuwait-Iraq context, is the deadlock between Arab and Israeli. Saddam is surely wrong to insist that any Palestinian accord must be linked to an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait; but he is correct to insist that such an accord is absolutely crucial to any hopes for regional peace.
It is at least arguable that previous progress toward healing that vast wound would have discouraged Iraq from trying to gobble Kuwait; at least Israel might not now be defined as a likely Iraqi target. Yet decades of intransigence by both Palestinians and Israelis, and a stream of easily thwarted diplomatic feelers from outsiders, have left the conflict scarcely any closer to resolution.
Since August, I have believed Saddam's aggression must be checked, and I still do. The need to secure a long-term peace exceeds the pain, acute though it is, of war. But the price will be steep, made the steeper because events did not have to go this way.