In July, 1955, there was the bomber gap. The Soviets flew Bison bombers repeatedly in a loop over visitors at an air show, giving an exaggerated notion of their numbers. A worried U.S. military proceeded to build up its air-defense system. Eventually, a U-2 spy-plane pilot who flew over what was known as the Engels airfield in Russia saw scores of Bisons and thought he had confirmed the bomber gap. It turned out that what he saw was not a portion of the Bison inventory but all of it. The bomber gap didn't exist.
In the 1960 Presidential election, John F. Kennedy brought Americans the missile gap. He charged that the Eisenhower Administration had allowed the U.S. nuclear arsenal to fall behind the Soviet stockpile and vowed to beef up U.S. strategic capability. After the election, evidence of a gap emerged -- but it turned out that it was the U.S. arsenal that was larger. That didn't stop Kennedy from launching a nuclear-arms buildup.
HYPOTHETICAL RATIONALE. The late 1970s saw the "window of vulnerability." According to a group of conservative defense analysts, the Soviets had the ability to knock out America's land-based nukes in a first strike, leaving the U.S. the unacceptable choices of annihilating Russia with sea-based missiles or surrender. The claims were based on faulty assessments of the Soviet weapons' power and accuracy -- to say nothing of Moscow's intentions. But Washington spent gobs of money trying to figure out whether to harden existing missile silos or build mobile missiles to close the alleged window.
This time around, the gap is between what Saddam Hussein might be capable of doing in the future and America's ability to deter or defeat it. Whether a gap really exists is unknowable. But it puts critics in the unenviable position of having to prove not one but two negatives: "That something unknowable will not exist, which is logically impossible," says Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney.
Some skeptics go even further and compare the current debate to the Soviet war scare of 1948. These experts believe the Truman Administration's calculated talk about a Soviet invasion of Germany was intended to win the election, boost the defense budget and the economy, and persuade Congress to pass the Marshall Plan. Intelligence at the time clearly indicated the Soviets had no intention to invade.
ECONOMIC DRAG. My own take is a bit different. For starters, some Bush Administration officials, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, have been arguing for years that Saddam is a threat. This isn't mere election opportunism for them. But when President Bush wonders out loud whether Democrats are really interested in the security of America, it does make you wonder how pristine his motives are. His comments smack of politics, pure and simple. There's a touch of McCarthyism in that kind of accusation.
And this time, talk of war isn't aiding the economy. If anything, it's a drag. The defense industry isn't likely to be a big winner. Any war in Iraq is going to require more smart munitions and fuel -- not new tanks or planes or ships. If the war is over fast, little money will find its way to the industry. If it takes more time, the focus is likely to be on urban warfare, which again is no bonanza for the defense business.
All that said, is the threat real? There's simply no way of knowing. Intelligence can't categorically prove or disprove what Saddam might do in the future. That makes it impossible to refute the Administration's argument but also deprives it of a smoking gun.
KEY QUESTION. Should the U.S. do something about Saddam anyway? The Administration says it's better to be safe than sorry, better to be Churchill than Chamberlain. The other side notes that Saddam isn't young, is in ill health, and constantly worries about being assassinated. He could pass from power before he's an imminent threat. And, of course, political and military downsides must be considered -- such as possibly alienating allies in the Arab world, causing a sharp hike in oil prices, and solidifying resistance to the U.S. among European leaders.
Forcing Saddam into exile may be the best solution. It would avoid the diplomatic and military risks of an attack on a desperate, brutal ruler while still effecting regime change.
For me, whether or not Washington should attack depends on the answer to one complicated question: Is that approach the best way of achieving the goal? That's a key issue not just for America's own course of action but for the precedent it sets. Bush's rationale for attack cannot be distinguished on principle from what, say, India might consider against Pakistan.
The only difference may be tactical: Does the move bring you closer to your goal of peace and security or further from it? That's the fundamental question Washington must grapple with now. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online