The battle has been won again. Now to see whether the war is closer to being won.
The battle, several times lost and rewon in recent years, is over unhampered UN inspection to prevent development of NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) superweapons in Iraq. That appears likely to be settled - for the immediate future.
The war is a long one: to prevent the threat or use of such weapons by Iraq (or any other state) against the people of another state. That will require more vigilance than the Clinton administration has shown in the past. It will also require changes in US foreign policy. More on that below.
First, the US and other UN Security Council powers must read the fine print on the deal struck between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraq's total ruler, Saddam Hussein. Then they need to do several things promptly:
* Vote - to confirm the deal.
* Inspect. Immediately set UNSCOM inspection teams into action testing the deal. That means inspecting the eight "presidential sites." It also means quickly checking other locales that might be part of any fast-moving shell game to hide equipment or stockpiles of biological or chemical warhead supplies.
* Surprise. Make sure that the new system for assigning diplomats to accompany UN inspectors creates safeguards against tipping off Iraq about targets of surprise inspections. Like the existing UN international nuclear inspection regime, this system needs to preserve an element of surprise.
* Feed. See that UN arrangements to allow Baghdad to sell more oil to fund food and health aid for Iraqis move more efficiently than in the past.
* Deter. Keep a strong US force in the Gulf for an indefinite period, to provide muscle for the Annan deal. Baghdad might, of course, calculate US forces are a paper tiger. But Saddam Hussein ought to realize that international willingness to countenance force would increase if Iraq undermines a deal freshly inked.
Despite skepticism in Washington - some of it genuine, some staged for political effect - the Annan deal should be a welcome relief. It saved the US from squandering more of the repute it won, post-cold war, as a tactically savvy leader. Squandering is not too strong a word. Neither (1) the major Arab neighbors Washington says it wants to protect from mayhem-tipped missiles nor (2) the principal European and Asian users of Mideast oil backed an air war at this time. Nor were the US Congress and American people united on how to achieve the goals of curbing Saddam's ambitions and bottling up NBC weapons worldwide.
For the latter global struggle, the US needs to rethink its policies.
First, it ought to renew and enlarge its efforts with Russia to prevent malcontent nations or terrorist groups from obtaining nuclear warhead materiel from that nation's sometimes ill-guarded stockpiles.
Second, it ought to move far less timidly in pursuing Iran's overture to explore better relations. That's a far more realistic way to prevent nuclear arms proliferation than adamantly sticking to the failed containment of Iran. And dealing forthrightly with Iran should also help to deter miscalculation by Iraq's Mr. Hussein.
The Kofi Annan deal is useful for the present. But for the longer run it will need such tactical reinforcement.