Why Salami Tactics Have Worked for Saddam

So far, Saddam Hussein is ahead on points. It is possible, increasingly even likely, that he will win this round. He has stood up to American saber rattling because, it would appear, he does not believe it.

Last fall, when he started the crisis over UN inspections, Saddam threatened to shoot down the US U-2 reconnaissance planes, an important tool in uncovering his secret arms programs. Washington at once promised drastic reprisal. It was serious beyond doubt, and his threat was not heard again.

Now Saddam has some things going for him. The US does not want to attack, but to get the inspectors of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission, back to work through diplomatic means. Washington's supporters feel the same way, while Russia, France, China, and most Arab states oppose the use of force altogether.

The US is legally entitled to go it alone and might still do so, but it will not get UN Security Council endorsement unless Saddam wildly overplays his hand. Last November, the council voted to bring him into line by imposing new travel restrictions. But those have been quietly forgotten. And today the talk is not capitulation but compromise.

Another of Saddam's trump cards is the knowledge that even his enemies need him. This was clear in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in 1991 during and after Desert Storm. In successive resolutions, the Security Council affirmed Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity. While Saddam's demise or removal was devoutly wished, nothing was done. No one interfered when his troops crushed an uprising in the southern provinces.

Everyone preferred Saddam to the chaos and partition that might follow. Turkey fears an independent Kurdistan; the Saudis fear Iran's influence in a divided Iraq.

In the seven years since Saddam's defeat in Desert Storm, despite who-knows-how-much skullduggery, the US hasn't been able to find or create an alternative.

Saddam has the advantage of winning if he does not lose; the US loses if it does not win. But what is winning? Thus far, Saddam has had the initiative. The US has "won" a number of confrontations since 1991, sending missiles into Baghdad, bombing radar sites, and rushing warships, planes, troops, and equipment to the Gulf. All of it at enormous expense.

Each time, Saddam has backed down, as he wants to appear to do now, but never entirely. Over the years he never stopped testing his limits. His international support and room for maneuver have grown. The man who invaded Kuwait and burned its oil fields, and whose biological and chemical weapons are meant at least to terrorize his Arab neighbors, now enjoys Arab backing. Meanwhile, the US is accused of a double standard: punishing Saddam for violating his obligation to disarm while making common cause with Israel, which ignores UN resolutions on southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and land for peace.

The picture is full of paradox. Economic sanctions intended to confine Saddam are a leaky sieve. He has smuggled out billions of dollars worth of oil to buy luxury goods and forbidden technology while building himself and his cronies palaces. Most of the Iraqi people have been reduced to such piteous poverty that the UN is now more than doubling its humanitarian aid.

Once again, Saddam appears to be calling the tune. He could end the crisis in a moment by acknowledging UNSCOM's right to inspect any sites it deems suspicious. But clearly he has something else in mind.

His ultimate purpose is to end sanctions, sell his oil, and regain a free hand. To do this, he must move in stages. First, he may head off the possible crunch by enveloping it in a fog of diplomacy, partial offers, human intercessions, and obfuscation. Salami tactics would slice away UNSCOM's legitimacy and authority. The US could veto any proposal in the Security Council to terminate restrictions or call off the monitoring and verification UNSCOM is empowered to conduct.

But, over time, Saddam's money could crumble sanctions, and the US would hardly fill the Gulf with carrier battle groups every time he tweaked Washington's nose. There comes a time when attack is politically out.

The prospect is not bright. Sweden's Rolf Ekeus, former head of UNSCOM, had it right five years ago: "With the cash, the suppliers, and the skills," he said, " [Iraq] will be able to reestablish all the weapons. It may grow up like mushrooms after the rain."

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.

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