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Saddam shouts, the allies mumble

As usual, there is method to Saddam Hussein's seeming madness. Hussein has picked the perfect time to test the unity and resolve of the international coalition that won the Persian Gulf war and has enforced the postwar sanctions against Iraq. The Clinton administration should be employing firm diplomacy, along with the threat of firm military reprisal, to ensure Iraq's compliance with U.N.-imposed sanctions.

So far, the response to Iraq's defiance has been disappointingly weak. The United Nations Special Commission, which is responsible for carrying out inspections in Iraq and destroying any prohibited weapons discovered, meekly turned its inspectors away from suspicious sites. It also suspended surveillance flights by American U-2 aircraft after Hussein threatened to shoot them down. And despite an established policy of no negotiations with Hussein over terms of the sanctions, a U.N. negotiating team traveled to Iraq to meet Hussein on his terms.

Meanwhile, American officials have responded tepidly to Hussein. President Clinton said firing on our aircraft would be "a big mistake." Secretary of Defense William Cohen said such an attack would have "serious consequences." That is hardly the sort of unmistakable language Hussein should be hearing.

At least Hussein has not yet succeeded in creating open divisions among the major members of the Persian Gulf alliance. The Security Council has been unanimous in calling on Iraq to cooperate with international inspectors. Hussein also has failed to win any public support from his most prominent Arab neighbors. However, China, Russia and France are all eager to see the sanctions against Iraq relaxed in ways that further their political and economic interests, and several of the Arab governments that supported the war against Iraq would prefer not to be openly aligned with the United States during a period of heightened Arab-Israeli tensions.

The alliance is likely to remain publicly solid through the conclusion of the current crisis, but Hussein may create fissures that will serve his long-term interests. By focusing his complaints on American inspectors and American surveillance planes, Hussein makes a subtle overture to countries such as France and Russia. The tactic furthers his argument that American intransigence perpetuates economic sanctions that thwart potentially lucrative deals between Iraq and more reluctant members of the Persian Gulf alliance.

Our government's best response is that Hussein's continued lawlessness, as evidenced by his current behavior, necessitates the continuation of international pressure. Iraq's defiance of international inspectors is troubling enough. But the strong possibility that the defiance is intended to prevent discovery of secret biological or chemical weapons labs makes this crisis even more acute. Washington has been successful until now in maintaining a unified front against Hussein, but the lure of Iraqi oil keeps eroding the coalition's foundation. Hussein has overreached this time, but next time may be different.

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