As US diplomats wearily face yet another confrontation with Saddam Hussein, it appears that eight years of struggling to contain the stubborn Iraqi dictator have taken their toll. The US may have few good options for dealing with the latest Iraq inspection crisis, in part because many old Gulf War allies have no desire to bomb Baghdad again.
US threats to use force to compel compliance with UN weapons inspectors have been muted in recent days, at least compared with the belligerent sword rattling of crises past. At the same time, many US officials are preoccupied trying to find out who planted the bombs that blew up two American embassies in East Africa - acts of terrorism that some experts have speculated may be related to Gulf or Middle Eastern tensions.
The stakes in Iraq remain high, caution experts. If Saddam Hussein manages to distract world attention long enough to accumulate weapons of mass destruction, it would produce one of the most dire threats to US interests imaginable.
But US officials must walk a fine line in their attempts to prevent such a scenario. They want to avoid the situation they found themselves in last February, when opposition from other members of the UN Security Council rendered US threats of force hollow.
The Clinton administration "doesn't want to get caught in the same trap as last time, when [it] was caught out on a limb without anyone else," says Richard Shultz, director of Tufts University's International Securities Studies Program.
The latest standoff began last Wednesday, when Iraq flatly declared that it would no longer cooperate with the inspectors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) that have moved about the country since the end of the Gulf War, looking for evidence of development of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
On Sunday, UNSCOM suspended inspections of new suspected arms sites, but said its experts in Iraq would continue to monitor sites already identified as suspicious. In response to the latest crisis, US officials have had at least one primary goal: define the conflict as one between Iraq and the world community as opposed to a US-Saddam fight.
Thus, on Sunday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the conflict "is a problem between Saddam Hussein and the United Nations. And the United Nations has to stand up for what it has obliged him to do."
This approach shows how much importance the US is putting on trying to keep up a united front with its allies. That is the result of the bitter lesson learned last January and February, when the administration belatedly discovered that of the Big Five Security Council powers, Russia, China, and France all favored relaxation of sanctions against Iraq to some degree.
"If we want to resolve the problem, then we must adopt a balanced approach," says Ranfeng Chen, a spokesman at China's mission to the UN.
US officials still say their options include bombing and point out that the US military power in the region, while reduced from earlier in the year, is far greater than it was about 12 months ago. But the threats are carefully worded. Ms. Albright talked about the use of force "if there is a threat to the stability of the region or if in any way we feel that we are endangered."
The upshot, according to some experts: Saddam Hussein has some leverage. He will be able to negotiate an end to this latest halt in inspections in a way that mirrors the incremental gains he has made the last few times he has so grabbed world attention.
Last February, the settlement hammered out by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan included the appointment of a new UN special envoy to Baghdad - a small but important victory for Saddam over UNSCOM, which he detests.
"Saddam will make further gains towards recovering his sovereignty of action," says Graham Fuller, a senior analyst at the Rand Corp. "The US policy over the last seven years, which has aimed at keeping Saddam in a box, has been successful, but it has now run out."
Instead, the US now appears to be counting on a new option for dealing with Iraq, that of building up opposition leaders. Congress has already voted $10 million for an effort to support Iraqi opposition groups outside the country.
But some Republicans say they're underwhelmed by this approach. A new House panel report suggests the aggressive option of declaring a "no-drive" zone in northern Iraq, meaning US air power would fire on Iraqi troops moving against opposition Kurds in the region.
The East African embassy bombings have introduced an element of uncertainty into dealings with Iraq. If investigators determine that Saddam had a hand in the twin tragedies, US response could be swift.
But if Iraq was not involved, preoccupation with the bombing investigation could help Saddam. "Typically, Washington is not a good town for handling more than one crisis at a time," says Mr. Shultz of Tufts.
* Minh T. Vo contributed to this report from New York.