For six years, Saddam Hussein has played hide and seek with United Nations inspectors. He has been operating what became, in effect, weapons laboratories on wheels, driving off when inspectors approached.
Now, the Iraqi dictator has contrived to gain a week without ground or aerial surveillance, and more time with only high-flying U-2 surveillance. He apparently is hoping soon to confront the world with toxic VX nerve gas and/or anthrax spores, deliverable by missiles with a 370-mile range.
His idea, apparently, is to use chemical-biological blackmail where his diplomats failed in obtaining the lifting of an oil embargo more effective than Baghdad has been willing to admit. The current manufactured crisis is not an impulsive act, but was in preparation in Baghdad for the last nine months.
Iraq scholar Laurie Mylroie has analyzed a similar nine-month buildup to the aborted second invasion of Kuwait in October 1994. A January speech by Saddam initiated a series of statements about waning patience and determination to beat the UN sanctions.
The Iraqi government set a deadline for removing sanctions, and suddenly 30,000 Republican Guards appeared on Kuwait's border, with more on the way. Iraq backed down after President Clinton announced that he was rushing US forces to the Gulf.
The current buildup started with a meeting of the Cabinet last March, after Iraq apparently determined that the lifting of sanctions was not in the cards as long as Saddam persisted in developing weapons of mass destruction.
An escalating series of statements denounced the "futile" embargo, prepared the Iraqis for further "sacrifices," and harped on the theme of patience being exhausted. By last month, Iraqi propaganda was stressing a last chance for the UN to act on ending sanctions before something unspecified happened.
"Incremental" diplomatic measures, the current UN buzzword, are not likely to deter the Iraqi dictator. A multilateral military response will be hard to organize without a flagrant act like the invasion of Kuwait. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia or Turkey would serve today as a staging area.
When I asked Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe whether there could be a role for NATO, he said, "We are not yet, by any means, in a position to rely on the alliance to meet very distant threats."
The Washington Times reports that Iraq is seeking to buy Czech electronic systems capable of detecting and shooting down American radar-evading Stealth bombers. Saddam seems content to let the diplomatic palaver drag on while he moves from begging to blackmail in his campaign against sanctions.
Every day without close inspection brings him closer to having something to blackmail us with and puts the United States between Iraq and a hard place.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.