To Strike Iraq?

Much of the Arab world expects President Clinton to approve at any time a military attack on Iraq. But Arab capitals don't see this as readiness to uphold the legitimacy of UN Security Council resolutions or to protect the world from the chemical or biological weapons Saddam Hussein may be producing. Instead, it is assumed the president will act to divert public attention from his personal problems.

Such is just one example of the damage done by the emerging Monica Lewinsky affair, even before we know the truth of that matter.

Perhaps Saddam may be hoping that a president busy trying to save his political career won't risk being accused of foreign adventures and won't act against Iraq.

If so, he'll be miscalculating, as he did before the Gulf War.

Significantly, there appears to be little political opposition in Congress to military action. If anything, the Republican leadership seems more impatient than the White House with Iraq's stonewalling of UN inspectors.

Every sign points to the diplomatic clock having nearly ticked down to zero. US diplomacy now seems less intent on changing Iraq's mind and more interested in how to gather as much international support as possible and carry out the most effective military strike.

Britain, whose prime minister, Tony Blair, will be in Washington for talks within a few days, seems likely to be the only military partner. But France has become increasingly disillusioned by Iraq's evasions and is talking tougher. Russia has sent a high-level envoy, Viktor Posuvalyuk, to Iraq for last-minute negotiations. If he succeeds, a grateful world will applaud; if he fails, it should bring Russia closer to acquiescing to the need for military force.

Although the US has made it clear it needs no further UN approval to act, the US must make a strong effort to obtain some further supportive statement from the UN before it acts.

Most important, the military objectives must be clear. Attacks on suspected chemical and biological sites must recognize the possibility of releasing dangerous materials into the atmosphere. And other steps must be weighed: Should the action include attacks on the Republican Guard that keeps Saddam in power? Should the "no fly" zones be further enlarged to aid Kurdish and other opponents of Saddam?

Any strikes should be more than the "pinpricks" of 1996 and should occur in steps, giving Saddam opportunities to back down and comply. Of course, every effort should be made to limit, or avoid, civilian casualties.

Military strikes are not inevitable. Nor are they preferable to a peaceful settlement. But at this point unmistakable US signals that, unless Iraq complies with the UN's legal right to inspect all sites, such strikes will be inexorable and swift seem to offer the last best hope of bringing Iraq to its senses.

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