Slowly but surely, a debate is emerging within the US on the wisdom of President George W. Bush's intention to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Documents leaked to prominent newspapers have revealed divisions within the Pentagon on how this can best be accomplished. And last week the Senate committee on foreign relations spent two days hearing testimony from non-government experts on the what, how, when and why of regime change in Baghdad. Polls show that, while most Americans support Mr Hussein's removal, they remain divided on the wisdom of using ground troops to do so.
Many in Europe have long been demanding just such a debate. Ever since last January, when Mr Bush branded Iraq— along with Iran and North Korea— as part of an "axis of evil", they have been asking tough questions about possible military action against Baghdad. What is the nature of the Iraqi threat? How grave are the risks of military action against Iraq in terms of casualties and the possible use of chemical and biological weapons? What are the implications for regional stability? Can the economic consequences of rising oil prices be managed? How will security and stability within Iraq be maintained once Mr Hussein has been removed?
Now that American politicians have decided to confront these questions, different views are likely to emerge— not only about how to conduct a military campaign against Mr Hussein but also about whether one should be undertaken at all.
Europe can play a crucial role in shaping how this American political debate unfolds. It is true Washington insiders usually scoff at the idea that European views can influence their decisions. So far, the Bush administration has found it easy to dismiss Europe's questions as little more than whining by allies that have grown comfortable with appeasing rogue states.
But Europe could decisively influence US policymaking if it could clearly, forcefully and collectively back a coherent alternative to the Bush administration's emerging strategy of military action.
What would such an alternative be? It would have to accept the premise of the US debate: that the status quo in Iraq is unacceptable. Mr Hussein's continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction poses too grave a risk— one that will only worsen with time.
Something, therefore, has to give. Either Mr Hussein or his weapons must go. The latter requires the kind of intrusive and unconditional inspection regime that few believe Baghdad would accept. But if Europe joined the US, and perhaps Russia, to give Mr Hussein a choice— either give up your weapons or give up your power— there would be a chance, perhaps even a substantial one, that he might choose his neck over his weapons.
This strategy can work only if Europe is prepared to match words with deeds and participate in a war aimed at deposing Mr Hussein. It must be made clear to him that all the main powers are united if there is to be any hope he will allow the kind of robust inspections needed to uncover and destroy his vast inventory of weapons of mass destruction.
So while America debates the how, when and why of going to war against Iraq, Europe has its own choice to make. It can sit on the sidelines, with some carrying Mr Bush's water and many others carping about his unilateralism. Or it can begin to act as the power so many Europeans wish existed; and propose and back a forceful alternative that stands a chance of getting much of what the US wants in Iraq.
Would Washington listen? The emerging US debate reflects a growing recognition that the course the Bush administration seems intent on pursuing carries significant risks-of substantial US casualties if the fight is carried to the streets of Baghdad, of precipitating the very use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq that war is designed to prevent and of committing the US to a lengthy occupation of Iraq.
Confronted with this potential price tag, many Americans may well be inclined to try something else first. Indeed, senior members of the Senate foreign relations committee, including Senator Joseph Biden, its chairman, and Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking member, indicated that they supported a renewed attempt to get Baghdad to accept intrusive inspections, at least as a first step. But to step back from the march to war, Americans need to know that a less risky and perhaps equally effective strategy has international support.
As last month's confrontation over the International Criminal Court showed, when Europe speaks with a single, clear voice the White House is forced to listen. Europe therefore has a responsibility once again to speak with a single, clear voice on Iraq. If it does, America may again listen. But if Europe prefers carping from the cheap seats to offering an alternative of its own, it will have little reason to complain if America decides to go its own way.