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By the time this gets into print, our nation may be at war. As I write, our nation's capital is peacefully, eerily quiet.

This is the usual pattern of late August. The president has just returned from Maine, the Supreme Court is in recess, members of Congress have scattered to the four winds. On Capitol Hill the marble corridors echo the sound of an occasional file clerk passing by. The subway is running a single car. Press galleries are empty. Everyone who can afford to take a vacation has gone on vacation. It is thus a good time to brood over what has happened since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, and what may happen hereafter.The word ``dilemma' is much abused. It is usually defined as a situation in which one must choose between two equally balanced and equally unacceptable alternatives. The word ought to be reserved for indecisions more serious than a choice of TV channels at 9 o'clock.

In responding to the Iraqi blitz, President Bush confronted a true dilemma. To intervene or not to intervene? He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. He made the right choice. He sent in the troops.

Suppose he had opted for a policy of non-intervention. It would have been a plausible posture. In times past we have had a useful rationale for military action. In Grenada, it was to protect American citizens. In Panama, we sought to restore a democratically elected government in our own hemisphere. Operations in Korea and Vietnam had noble underpinnings.

But the rescue of Kuwait? Of Saudi Arabia? There was nothing noble here, nothing to touch the heart, nothing to stir the finest emotions of political consanguinity. In the oil-rich emirates of the Middle East, no one has seen democracy lately. Why intervene? Are we risking the lives of American troops in the holy name of cheap gasoline?

Fair question. Good question. The unpalatable answer is, yes, that is exactly why we have sent thousands of troops to the sands of Saudi Arabia. It is not the whole answer. For a more complete explanation, one has to consider the second horn of the president's dilemma.

Again, suppose he had done nothing. In that event, not only the United States but much of the Western world would now be hostages to Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The conquest of defenseless Kuwait would have been followed at once by the conquest of Saudi Arabia. The smaller emirates would have surrendered either literally or effectively. By this time Hussein would have consolidated his position as king of the hill. He would be on his uninterrupted way toward the development and deployment of nuclear arms.

What lies ahead? In a sea of uncertainties, we may be certain of this much: Western interests demand that Hussein be defanged, removed from power, and his successor rendered incapable of threatening the West again. If this can be accomplished through economic sanctions, well and good, but Hussein will not be easily dislodged. The saving of face is as important in the Arab world as it is in the Orient.

This implies force. Before long we may have a Grenada justification in the rescue of Americans held hostage in Kuwait and Iraq. Citizens of Egypt, France, Italy, the Soviet Union and Great Britain are equally in peril. It would be better to have company, but if need be the United States must go it alone. We must strike with overwhelming power. This cannot be another Vietnam in which greathearted troops are supported by a halfhearted effort.

``If it were done when 'tis done,' mused Macbeth, ``then 'twere well it were done quickly.' We cannot maintain thousands of troops indefinitely in Saudi Arabia. They must be asked to accomplish their mission professionally, and then to withdraw.

Meanwhile, a host of domestic problems cry out for attention. A sluggish economy, an irresponsible Congress, a revised budget for defense - these are compelling concerns. Capitol Hill is quiet now, but it is an uneasy quiet. If it is to be a shooting war, let us throw every resource into winning it, and winning it soon.

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