IRAQ'S refusal to abide by United Nations cease-fire terms and cooperate in the destruction of its nonconventional weapons capability raises a familiar dilemma: continued sanctions or military force?
The Bush administration is clearly trying to signal that a resumption of military action to enforce UN demands is not out of the question - despite the awkwardness it might cause the president in the midst of a campaign.
At the same time, UN inspectors are planning renewed efforts to examine plants that produce ballistic missiles and materials for nuclear warheads. The UN commission charged with enforcing the peace terms also has plans to move beyond inspection to the dismantling of such plants.
Iraq's claim, reiterated last week at UN headquarters in New York by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, is that its weapons facilities can be converted to other uses. But as the head of the UN commission, Rolf Ekeus, commented, "The Iraqis will find a dual use for everything."
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the door is wide open for military action. If bombs fall again, President Bush could be accused of exploiting the situation for political gain. Iraqis might rally around Saddam, instead of turning from him.
Moreoever, the move to strip Iraq of its nonconventional weaponry would be strengthened if joined to a region-wide campaign to control arms - but such a campaign has been given only lip service by the US and others.
The alternative to force is to continue the strict embargo. It's a long-term strategy that unquestionably hurts Iraq - though it's unclear it hurts Saddam and his entourage as much as the population at large. The humanitarian question can't be ignored.
The chief perpetrator of the suffering is Saddam, however. The UN has to show that it intends to see the conditions of the cease-fire carried out. If the UN has to resort to force once again, the US will back the decision. And Saddam will have only himself to blame for another miscalculation of the international community's will to stop him.