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Menachem Begin faced the question in 1981 and President Clinton faces it now, one of the most difficult questions of national leadership.

On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-16 pilots bombed and smashed Saddam Hussein's first nuclear reactor so badly that it had to be abandoned.Denunciations rolled in from the Arab world and Europe, particularly from France, which had built the reactor for the Iraqis. From the United States, too, came outraged criticism.

The Israeli raid set back Saddam's nuclear weapon plans at least 10 years. Saddam's lost nuclear decade allowed the United States - and the Arabs and the French - to make the decision to fight him when he invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia's oil.

Begin's objective was hardly to protect Iraq's Arab neighbors or their oil. He just wanted to make sure that the Israeli people were protected from the most dangerous of human beings - a military dictator endowed with a record of instability, very bad judgment and a weapon of unspeakable horror. Israel had its own nuclear weapons. But Begin did not want to find out if Saddam Hussein was mad enough to use his first.

So the question Begin faced was: Shall we act or wait and see?

It's Clinton's question now. Again, an emotionally unstable Mideast dictator is building an arsenal that could be of hideous danger to selected enemies - a list headed by the United States and its people.

Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, according to U.S. and foreign intelligence, is a year or two from completing the world's largest chemical-weapons plant, inside a vast cavern dug out of a mountain.

For years, this man has been producing chemical and bacteriological weapons. The new plant would make him the largest producer in the world, at a time when the United States and most other countries are slowly destroying their stockpiles and considering a universal ban.

With the missiles the Chinese are peddling, Libyan poison-gas warheads could reach the countries of some of his Mideast enemies. He would not be mad enough to do that, and bring the West into a war against him. Would he? Shall we wait and see?

Or, much easier, he could secretly equip terrorists with poison-gas components for their bombs. If a Hamas terrorist is ready to die killing Israelis in Jerusalem, why would the same man not yearn for a bomb equipped with poison gas? Or why would not conspirators planning the next World Trade Center explosion?

What to do? The answer, specialists say, is a total ban on chemical weapons accompanied by penalties for producing such weapons, or using them, as Iraq did against its own Kurds.

Perhaps - but maybe it is daydreaming to expect dictatorships like the Iraqi, the Chinese, the Libyan, ever to abide by bans and rules, or anything but the certainty of retaliation - if caught.

In any case: What about bombing that plant in the mountains?

Complicated, the specialists say. It may be impregnable by now. Other producers of chemical weapons might get angry at us. Libya is one of 18 countries, including many in the Mideast, that make chemical and bacteriological weapons. Many of the ingredients are "dual-use" - materials that are also used to make legitimate chemical products. Chemical-weapons production would go on, somewhere.

True, all true. But bombing the plant, even if we have waited too long to destroy it completely, might make Gadhafi and other such entrepreneurs of death decide that the price of actually using them is too high. Or shall we just wait and see?