The accord on international weapons inspections reached by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraq presents President Clinton with perhaps the most difficult foreign-policy dilemma he has confronted since taking office.
Mr. Clinton's decision whether to accept the deal or proceed with airstrikes against Iraq could determine the future of American influence in the oil-rich region, where opposition to military action is enormous.
It will impact the now-moribund Middle East peace process as well as US relations with France, Russia, and China. All three have opposed Washington's threats to use force to end Iraqi defiance of United Nations' weapons inspections. All three laud the new accord, saying it eliminates the need for airstrikes.
Yet the prestige of the world's foremost economic, political, and military power may be at stake.
For Clinton to accept an agreement that falls short of his demands and encourages new Iraqi challenges would be widely read as weakness at a time when he is encumbered with serious personal problems. Such a perception, experts say, could raise fresh doubts about US resolve in protecting vital global interests.
"The problem with how we deal with Iraq is now far more serious," asserts Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute.
Clinton's decision is further complicated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's long history of perfidy and agreement-busting. Furthermore, even US officials say no arrangement - short of one that removes him from power - can end Saddam's threats to regional security, including his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The new accord is the second attempt to resolve diplomatically the crisis that began in November when the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) was blocked from pursuing its seven-year search for Iraq's illegal weapons programs. A first deal, brokered in December by Russia, collapsed when Iraq failed to end its interference with UNSCOM and refused to allow searches of eight of Saddam's sprawling palaces.
Iraq's moves are widely seen as aimed at further weakening support for keeping it under sanctions imposed by the UN after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions, which cannot be lifted until UNSCOM completes its mission, have reduced Iraq's 23 million people to penury while preventing Saddam from rebuilding what was once the world's fourth-largest army.
WHILE there is wide agreement that UNSCOM be allowed to work unfettered, Russia, France, and China are being lured by the promise of lucrative trade deals with Baghdad to seek ways of ending the sanctions. They have also shown sympathy with Iraqi charges that UNSCOM spies on behalf of the US, asserting that Baghdad's concerns be addressed.
The US, backed by Britain and a handful of other states, insists there be no let-up in the sanctions until UNSCOM certifies that it has eliminated all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They say they will use military force if Iraq persists in blocking UNSCOM.
Before leaving Baghdad, Mr. Annan said he believes the new accord addresses Iraq's demands that its sovereignty be respected and US insistence that UNSCOM have unfettered access to Saddam's palaces and other sites as required by UN resolutions ending the 1991 Gulf War. "The agreement I have reached with the government of Iraq I consider balanced," Annan said, without disclosing details. "I can say categorically there are no time limits or deadlines in the agreement."
But many US officials and independent experts caution that, even if the US accepts the accord, there is little chance Saddam will abide by it. Within the next few months, they contend, it is likely the Iraqi dictator will seek a new confrontation aimed at further boosting his standing in the Arab world and diluting support for maintaining sanctions.
Saddam "has been quite slippery in the past, so we are at a very uncertain period," says Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.
With so much in the balance, the Clinton administration's initial reaction to the agreement was cautious and skeptical. US officials stress that Annan described only an "outline" to Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in separate telephone calls.
They say a detailed US response will await the return to New York of Annan, who is scheduled to brief UN Security Council members today. After that, the US will want experts to determine if the deal meets its demands that UNSCOM retain the right to search any sites without limits.
Even if Washington accepts the agreement, US officials say the prodigious American-led force of ships, planes, and troops deployed in the Gulf will remain poised to strike, should Saddam renege on commitments. "Once we know what Annan brings back, we will keep our forces around for a while and await an opportunity to see that Iraq is sincere," says an administration official.
Whatever Clinton decides, experts agree there is a need for the US to develop a long-term policy to deal with one of the world's most intractable despots and the threats he poses to his neighbors and massive oil reserves. While the presence of the US-led force in the Gulf is believed to have compelled Saddam to negotiate the new agreement will likely bring only a temporary respite in tensions, they say.
* Staff writers James Skip Thurman and Scott Peterson contributed.