AS Saddam Hussein careens toward another confrontation with the West, he once again appears willing to face great risk for the slim chance that he can increase his own power through defiance.
Continued incursions across no-man's land into northern Kuwait appear to be testing United States patience as seriously as any Iraqi actions since the build-up to the Gulf war.
If previous actions by Saddam could be labeled "cheat and retreat," with Iraq backing down after grabbing world attention, the pattern of recent days seems almost "cheat, then sidestep and cheat again."
His most spectacular recent action was Sunday's Kuwaiti raid.
In 90 minutes, hundreds of Iraqis drove past United Nations inspectors, cornered them, and then removed weapons from six bunkers, including Chinese-made Silkworm missiles.
Yesterday some 150 more Iraqis crossed the border again, near the same spot, and started taking apart warehouses against UN orders.
Meanwhile, Iraq refused to allow a UN plane carrying weapons inspectors to land.
These actions followed last week's crisis, in which Iraq moved missiles to threaten US planes patrolling the no-fly zone over the south of the country, then moved them out again following allied sword rattling.
At the request of Washington and its coalition partners, the UN Security Council scheduled a meeting yesterday to discuss Iraq's incursions. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said he favored a tough response. "I hope that the Security Council will have a very stiff answer" to Iraq's incursions. "We cannot admit [allow] this kind of violation and this kind of threat to a member state of the United Nations, which Kuwait is," the secretary-general said at a press conference in Bonn.
The question is, what is Saddam Hussein's real goal with this increase in activity?
If it is simply to make life more complicated for nemesis George Bush in the waning days of his administration, Hussein's actions have certainly succeeded.
But if an increase in real power is Saddam's goal, then the insulting nature of his actions could play against him.
It is likely, for instance, that the US and its allies would invoke military action rather than allow Iraq to continue refusal of UN airplanes.
Perhaps Saddam is trying to position himself for better treatment at the hands of the incoming Clinton administration.
If so, he could hardly have done a worse job. A new commander in chief could hardly afford to appear soft. And that the new president is someone whose own draft record is an issue makes a tough line all the more probable.
Then again, Saddam Hussein has shown he is a poor judge of allied reaction before.
He greatly underestimated the reaction to his original invasion of Kuwait and the chances that the US would go to war against him.
This time he appears to be gambling that whatever the US does he will be left in power. Under a worst case, he might lose more of his military infrastructure to US bombing raids, but he will probably be left alive. He must feel that under those parameters the continued poking of Uncle Sam's face increases his grip in his own nation.
It may also increase fear of him in the region, notably in Kuwait. In the end, Saddam's greatest fear may simply be not appearing on CNN.
His own actions and the Western response have demonized him, and he appears to enjoy living up to that role.
The new, UN-drawn border between Iraq and Kuwait has given Kuwait parts of the big Rumailah oil field and the port of Umm Qasr over Iraqi protests.
Iraq has mounted increasingly serious border penetrations in the past few months. At least one was repelled last month by Kuwaiti military forces.
Per UN resolution Iraq is allowed to retrieve equipment left behind after the Gulf war from the Kuwaiti side of the border. But before doing so Iraqi officials are supposed to get permission from both Kuwait and UN authorities.
The lightly armed UN guards present along the border weren't able to stop the incursions of Sunday or Monday, however.
It was unclear whether the Iraqi work crews were armed, or even whether they were composed of military personnel.
Iraqis "are doing their activities quietly ... but always monitored by [UN] military observers," Abdellatif Kabbaj, a spokesman for the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission, told the Associated Press.
In recent days, US military power in the Persian Gulf region has been augmented by the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its complement of attack and bomber aircraft.
Kitty Hawk fighters flew over a hundred sorties last weekend policing the southern no-fly zone.
A wing of US F-16 and F-15 strike aircraft is still in place in Saudi Arabia, at the big Dhahran air base on the Persian Gulf.