Here we go again. The United States is having yet another showdown with Saddam Hussein and the scenario goes something like this:
In Baghdad, the Iraqi president makes a rude gesture at the United States and dares us to do something about it. In Washington, U.S. officials wring their hands over how to respond, get into tense negotiations with countries that are supposed to be our allies and issue tough public statements to paper over our relative lack of options.
If all this sounds a bit familiar, there's a good reason _ we've been through it before, the last time 14 months ago.
This time around, the issue is whether U.S. experts can be members of the United Nations teams that monitor Iraq's development of military weapons, especially nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The monitoring was authorized by U.N. resolutions passed at the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
U.N. guidelines _ as well as all 15 members of the Security Council _ say Iraq doesn't have any authority over the composition of these monitoring teams. Hussein disagrees and is blocking the work of any teams that have Americans.
To up the ante, he has ordered seven Americans attached to the U.N. teams out of Iraq before the end of the week and threatened to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance planes.
On Monday, neither side was giving an inch. Spokesmen at the White House and State Department emphasized repeatedly there would be no negotiating with Hussein. A three-member U.N. delegation going to Iraq would demand that Hussein back down, not give him room to maneuver.
Hussein would have to accept U.S. inspectors or else, they said.
"This is not a bazaar," said State Department spokesman James Rubin. "There will no negotiations. He (Hussein) has to comply with the U.N. Security Council's resolutions."
And if he doesn't?
"Our view then is that the Security Council should be prepared to take very firm action."
And if it doesn't, mainly because some of our allies _ notably France and Russia _ are against dealing too harshly with Iraq?
"We're not ruling out any options," Rubin said.
Asked if that meant unilateral U.S. military action, the State Department spokesman chose his words carefully and said: "As a technical, legal matter, I don't think there's any question in our minds that we have all the authority we need."
Rubin was quick, however, to add that a military strike against Iraq was not how the Clinton administration hoped to deal with the crisis.
"Right now," he said, "we want Saddam Hussein to change his mind, to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions, and if that doesn't happen, for the Security Council to take firm action to convince him to do so."
Hopefully, Rubin concluded, there will be some kind of non-military solution when the three-member U.N. delegation completes its visit to Baghdad later this week.
When a similar confrontation came up 14 months ago, diplomacy eventually gave way to U.S. military action.
In August of last year, Hussein sent his army into northern Iraq's Kurdish region, a so-called "safe haven" area the United States had declared off-limits to Iraqi troops. The following month, Washington responded by unleashing dozens of cruise missiles against Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries in the south of the country.
To no one's surprise, the belated cruise missile strikes in southern Iraq did virtually nothing to help the Kurdish ethnic minority under attack in the north.
Hussein's troops rounded up _ and apparently put to death _ several hundred Kurds who had been working with the United States and its allies in the north. The Iraqi campaign also destroyed a $200-million operation mounted by the Central Intelligence Agency to eventually overthrow Hussein.
In addition to being a military and intelligence debacle, the episode strained Washington's ties with its allies almost to the breaking point.
France and Russia warned openly there could be no further military action and later pressed for a relaxation of U.N. sanctions against Iraq. U.S. officials, speaking off the record, noted bitterly that French and Russian companies had billions of dollars in oil production contracts waiting to go into effect as soon as the sanctions were lifted.
In this latest standoff with Iraq, France and Russia are taking the position that no action of any kind can be taken against Iraqwithout a new vote by the U.N. Security Council. Since both nations _ like the United States, Britain and China _ have veto power in the Security Council, it's entirely conceivable that Hussein's latest challenge could open a serious split in the allied front.
That, it seems obvious, is exactly what the Iraqi leader hopes to accomplish.
If Hussein can split the old gulf war alliance, he can get the harsh U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq lifted.
If he can do that, Hussein's position as leader of Iraq will be secured for years to come.