Nearly seven years after the end of the Gulf War, Iraq has yet to fully cooperate with the conditions agreed to at the end of that conflict. Most important, Saddam Hussein's regime has not allowed unfettered inspection of its weapons-building facilities. Verified destruction of any Iraqi capacity to produce chemical, biological, or nuclear munitions, and the means of delivering them, was part of the bargain. If Iraq cooperates, economic sanctions will be lifted.
Officials in Baghdad claim they have been cooperating. But their avowals carry considerably less weight than the reports of the United Nations chief weapons inspectors - Sweden's Rolf Ekeus in the past and currently Australian Richard Butler. These very credible gentlemen have consistently complained of Iraqi noncompliance.
Mr. Butler's first report as head of the UN inspections commission, issued in early October, noted continued obstruction by Baghdad and the hiding of evidence concerning chemical and biological weapons production. Despite that report, Saddam has seen an opportunity to test UN resolve. Security Council unanimity on sanctions against Iraq has shown cracks. A US-led effort to impose an international travel ban on Iraqi officials for thwarting inspections was watered down, with key Security Council members, notably Russia and France, abstaining.
The Iraqi dictator apparently felt it was time to counterpunch. Last week Iraq announced it would bar further participation by Americans in the UN's probe of its weapons industry. Of the 40 inspectors now in Iraq, seven are Americans. Over the weekend two Americans inspectors were prevented from deplaning near Baghdad.
Saddam wanted to show he means business. But when it comes to demanding compliance with weapons inspection requirements, the UN-based alliance that repelled Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has meant business all along. Saddam's move, ironically for him, could reinforce that unity.
Motivations quickly get tangled in the Gulf. Much of the world (less so, the US) depends on the region's oil. Disillusionment with the Mideast peace process disturbs Arab nations. In Washington, politicians are eager to wax belligerent against old enemy Saddam.
Hence the need to refocus on the real stakes: proving that the international community, working through the UN, can unite to thwart aggression and prevent its recurrence. The Clinton administration is right to emphasize that Saddam's actions are an affront to the UN, not to the US. Any options, diplomatic or military, have to serve the end of preserving the UN's authority to enforce its resolutions. Iraq can't be allowed to undercut that authority by changing the terms it previously agreed to.
Washington's patience may be tested as envoys from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan meet with Saddam in an effort to resolve the crisis. But diplomatic processes have to be allowed to work. Given humanitarian concerns and the safety of UN personnel in Iraq, force is a last option.