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Hussein the poker player

As any good poker player can tell you, you don't always have to have the best cards to take home the most money.

You can win even with a weak hand, they say, so long as you play smart and keep your nerve.

Now I don't know if Saddam Hussein plays poker. It's not an especially popular game in his part of the world. But if he does, I, for one, wouldn't want to be sitting at the same table with him.

Because if anything about the Iraqi dictator has become obvious in recent years, it's that he plays smart and keeps his nerve. Whatever the game, Hussein seems to know what it takes to prevail when the stakes are high and the pressure is on.

That's why all this bluster coming out of the White House, State Department and Pentagon the past few days sounds a bit hollow.

If you listen to President Clinton and his minions, Hussein has finally blown it this time: By barring Americans from United Nations' arms control teams and threatening to shoot down reconnaissance planes, he has overplayed his hand. Instead of splitting the American-led coalition that united against him in the Persian Gulf war six years ago, he has managed to bring it together again.

More than hollow, this Washington-style spin control is beginning to sound downright ridiculous.

Especially when you consider that the current showdown isn't an all-or-nothing game. This argument over who gets to be a U.N. weapons monitor in Iraq is only Hussein's latest bluff. And chances are that even if it doesn't work (and I wouldn't bet on that), Hussein will still be around for the next hand, and the one after that _ and probably in much better shape.

Which is more than you could say five years ago about George Bush. Or, for that matter, about Bill Clinton now. Hussein outlasted one American president and the way things are going these days, he'll outlast another.

The main problem here is fairly obvious even if Clinton administration officials don't like to talk about it much. It's that some of our gulf war allies are fed up with the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the war.

The way they see it, the sanctions are a total failure. Instead of punishing Hussein and his murderous cronies, they've only managed to hurt the 19-million or so Iraqis who have no say in their country's affairs. On top of that, by keeping Iraqi petroleum off the international markets, the sanctions have also kept world oil prices artificially high and punished everyone else too.

It's worth noting, of course, that France and Russia _ the biggest complainers among our allies _ aren't exactly disinterested parties. As soon as the sanctions are lifted, French and Russian companies stand to make billions of dollars from their oil production concessions in Iraq.

That's one reason France and Russia warned the other day that any new action against Iraq _ diplomatic or otherwise _ had to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, a body in which both have a veto and can overrule Washington. With that in mind, you don't have to be a diplomat to figure out that any unilateral action by the United States _ say, missile strikes on selected Iraqi targets _ would split the gulf war coalition wide open.

Missile strikes, you'll remember, are what Clinton used last year when Hussein sent his army into northern Iraq to wipe out a CIA undercover operation and a Kurdish separatist movement.

Those nighttime missile launches may have made for jazzy pictures on the evening TV news, but militarily, they didn't accomplish a thing. Diplomatically, they only showed how isolated Washington had become with its Iraqi obsessions. None of our allies helped. Saudi Arabia and Turkey even refused to let Washington use their territory as a staging area.

This time around, America is even more isolated and the Iraqi leader knows it. Missile strikes, or anything like that, would seem out of the question even if officials at the State Department and Pentagon hint obliquely that they aren't.

So what else is Clinton going to do if Hussein doesn't back down? Call him bad names? Make rude gestures?

If he's lucky and his diplomats are especially skillful, there's a chance that the president can get the allies to go along with tougher sanctions one more time. After that, I wouldn't count on it.

What you can count on is that however this latest showdown works itself out, Saddam Hussein will have another card to play sometime in the near future. And when he does, we'll be even more isolated than we are now.

The United States had its chance to take Hussein out of the game when it won the gulf war in 1991. It passed and the Iraqi dictator is still at the table.