Punishing a Petty Dictator

THE skies over Baghdad were illuminated by tracers again Sunday night as United States forces, at the behest of outgoing President Bush, launched cruise missile attacks against a suspected nuclear-weapons facility. Hours later, US, French, and British aircraft struck at targets in the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, thus raising the stakes with Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf.

Allied forces - allied, since there is no longer a recognizable coalition against Saddam - are right to stand firm on United Nations resolutions. Enforcement of the no-fly zone, designed to protect Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north, ought to continue. Taking out an industrial complex near Baghdad, which may have had tools for uranium enrichment, sends a sharp message to Saddam as he continues to hamper UN weapons inspections.

However, the US must not allow a defeated Iraqi dictator to set the tone and dominate world attention during the inaugural week of incoming President Clinton. Saddam must be resisted; the West has now shown resolve. But the best message to come out of Washington this week is not one of reaction, but of self-possession.

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Broken, beaten, and an international pariah, Saddam Hussein is playing games. His tweaking of Kuwait and no-fly rules tells President Bush, "I've outlasted you," and Mr. Clinton, "I will be here to deal with." Saddam loves this attention. If he can send a few hundred men into Kuwait or a plane into the no-fly zone and dominate Western headlines for days or weeks, he feels he has achieved his goal. That goal is to divert attention inside Iraq from sanctions-induced poverty and to rouse nationalist sympath ies inside the Arab world. It is not a serious military strategy; Saddam's military has been - and still is - devastated. (It was good to hear that Kuwaiti troops defended border posts Sunday. Such self-defense should be encouraged.)

Saddam Hussein has the tools to be a first-class nuisance, and he is using them. The Clinton administration, in keeping with Bush administration policy, must be willing to deliver sharp blows to the dictator. But it must find a way to do so without getting into an endless tit-for-tat with Saddam. That's what he wants.

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