SADDAM HUSSEIN just keeps on ticking.
Many of his Western foes have lost power - witness the political falls of George Bush and Margaret Thatcher. But the Iraqi leader, defeated in war, continues to test the resolve of foes with deadly, high-stakes mischief, ranging from his alleged Bush assassination plot to his current defiance of United Nations weapons inspectors.
So far Saddam's poke-and-prod policy has availed him little. There has been grumbling among Gulf war coalition members about United States retaliatory strikes, but no open break. UN inspection teams have probably uncovered far more about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction than Iraqi officials predicted. (View from Baghdad, Page 20.)
The challenge for the Clinton administration will be to continue its policy of "containment" of Saddam indefinitely without losing patience, energy, or focus. Clinton officials reject any suggestion that they are softer on Iraq than their predecessors.
"The current regime in Iraq is a criminal regime, beyond the pale of international society and, in our judgment, irredeemable," said Martin Indyk, National Security Council senior director for Near East, in a May speech on US interests in the Gulf region.
In the latest Saddam-created standoff, the US is for the moment deferring to the UN. On July 12, President Clinton said he would not intervene in the UN's attempts to convince Iraq to allow installation of monitoring cameras at two disputed missile sites.
UN inspectors July 11 left Iraq abruptly after they were refused permission to seal off the sites until the camera issue is resolved.
Rolf Ekeus, chief of the UN Special Commission on Iraqi weapon inspections, will personally carry the UN's message to Baghdad soon. If Iraq does not allow long-term monitoring at the missile sites, UN officials warned, they are likely to be destroyed by coalition military action.
"The Iraqi government is playing with fire," said British ambassador to the UN and current Security Council president David Hannay.
Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's UN ambassador, said July 12 that the world does not appreciate all Iraq has already done to comply with UN resolutions - and that Iraq still wants better relations with the new Clinton administration than it had with its old archenemy, George Bush.
Clinton officials generally do not discuss Saddam Hussein in the ogre-like terms used by their predecessors. Instead, they have focused on Iraqi behavior. "We seek Iraq's full compliance with all UN resolutions," Mr. Indyk said in his Gulf policy speech.
Clinton has not shied away from tough measures, as his cruise-missile strike in retaliation for the alleged plot on Bush shows. But some analysts say that a general problem with US policy since the end of the Gulf war has been its tendency to be reactive.
With his poking and prodding, Saddam has continually held the initiative and there have been an unending string of minicrises demanding US and UN attention. "He sets the agenda for the relationship," says John Hannah, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
How long can the US and its allies keep rapping Saddam for perceived infractions? By shifting attention from Saddam himself to compliance with UN resolutions, the Clinton administration has depersonalized its policy, writes Laurie Mylroie, another Washington Institute analyst and well-known Iraq expert.
Ms. Mylroie writes that eventually the Clinton White House might tire and "come to terms with Saddam's dogged hold on power and accept a diluted form of Iraqi compliance" with UN demands.
According to these analysts, what's needed is a concerted attempt to keep Saddam off balance politically, for example, through continued support for Iraqi political groups in exile, such as the Iraqi National Congress.
The INC has been widely criticized, however, for lacking a real power base inside Iraq.
Other analysts point out that the anti-Iraq coalition has showed surprising stamina so far. There was criticism in the Arab world of the most recent US cruise-missile attack, particularly in contrast to Western inaction to save Bosnian Muslims.
But two-and-a-half years after the end of Desert Storm, tough economic sanctions are still in place, Iraq is still politically isolated, and Saddam is far from rebuilding his threatening military machine.