Traditionally, the American people are slow to war. For much of their history, they have preferred to isolate themselves from the rest of the world until the problems strike at their own self-interests.

Iraq, however, poses a special challenge. As President Bush made clear in a much-needed and long-awaited speech Monday night, Saddam Hussein and the threat he represents to the United States and her allies will not go away on his own. This time, the nation may well have to strike first.

Much of what the president said spoke to a common-sense understanding hidden deep within many Americans. When U.S. and allied forces left Iraq at the end of the Gulf War with a defiant Saddam still in power, the common wisdom was that the armed forces would have to return again some day to remove the dictator. As the strength of U.N. sanctions began to erode like a sand sculpture on the beach, that wisdom seemed even more evident.

And when Bush last year declared the beginning of a long, difficult and all-encompassing war on terrorism following the attacks of 9/11, many people knew instinctively that this war eventually would lead to Saddam. While Saddam and al-Qaida are at odds in many ways, they share a common enemy. No one could seriously doubt that Saddam harbors a hatred for the United States and that his weapons program is, in some way, designed to disrupt U.S. interests.

And while the White House has yet to produce any evidence of a link between Saddam and al-Qaida, both represent clear threats to the United States — more, apparently, than any other rogue nation such as North Korea or Iran, which also are known to support terrorism.

The president is not the most articulate man to occupy the White House. His chief ally in Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, does a better job speaking on this issue.

But Bush took pains to answer the criticisms and concerns leveled at his recent push to get tough with Iraq, and he painted the situation in the starkest of terms. Saddam has built unmanned aircraft that would be able to deliver chemical and biological weapons to the United States, he said. The nation would be foolish to sit passively and wait for the worst to happen.

By now, it should be clear to all. This president is determined to force Saddam from power. He appears on the verge of gaining overwhelming support for this from Congress. The American people have been clear-eyed about war and its consequences since Vietnam.

Understandably, they are reluctant to launch into one without clear provocation, and without a clear understanding of all the consequences.

But Americans have known they must face Saddam again sooner or later. It appears the time has come.