The latest round in the fight between the United States and Saddam Hussein's Iraq calls to mind the story of two feuding French peasants. "Jacques," screams Jean, "you stole my wife, poisoned my dog, sold my cow, and set fire to my house. One of these days you'll go too far with me."
The UN Security Council, nervous since Iraq shut down new UN arms inspections on Aug. 5, is considering how to respond. Baghdad now also flatly repudiates UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission charged with denying Iraq weapons of mass destruction. This is a breach of the Security Council cease-fire resolution (No. 687), the terms of which Iraq accepted after the Gulf War ended in 1991.
In principle, the Council could resume the war. Last fall, President Clinton filled the Gulf with warships, threatening military action for smaller transgressions. Today there's nothing but stormy talk from the US, as it displays its badly cracked resolve. The Council has not even called Iraq's decision a violation of the resolution. Last March it threatened "severest consequences." That is forgotten. Iraq's latest act is delicately called a "contravention" which would not even in theory trigger counteraction.
If Washington were hoping that the cruise missiles that hit Islamist guerrilla bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan marked a return to tough, pro-active policy, there's no sign of it. Baghdad long ago decided that Washington wouldn't take the military steps needed to compel compliance with the resolution. Openly scornful of the latest Tomahawk strikes, Iraq says those strikes only prove that the US - unwilling to risk the lives of its soldiers - is not serious.
Belief among members of the Security Council that the Sudan attack hit the wrong chemical plant hasn't added to US prestige. Even prior to that, many in the Council opposed violent measures against Iraq. Washington has, in fact, come around to settling for continuation of the economic sanctions imposed when it invaded Kuwait in August 1990. But Saddam Hussein is changing the game.
When Iraq lowered the boom on arms inspections on Aug. 5, and broke off relations with UNSCOM, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it a clear violation of Security Council resolutions. But he suggested that the Council consider what he called "the larger questions" in averting a new crisis. He proposed it undertake "a comprehensive review of the entire issue" and engage Iraq in a "more direct dialogue." He thought that Iraq's position reflected frustration, even desperation, that the sanctions had lasted so long. The suffering of the Iraqi people under these restrictions - which Saddam Hussein could have ended years ago by accepting disarmament - is the crown jewel of Iraqi propaganda. It has aroused sympathy and support worldwide.
Saddam continues to insist he's complied with the arms control provisions of 687. He accuses UNSCOM of badgering and humiliating Iraq, violating its sovereignty and legitimate rights. These views are shared to a greater or lesser degree by Russia, France, China, Brazil, and others. He demands that UNSCOM be completely restructured and its headquarters moved out of New York. Nothing would please him more than to change the UN's terms of reference from Iraq as potential menace to Iraq as victim of the US.
A COMPREHENSIVE review and more direct dialogue would expand to the Security Council the contact Saddam has already established with the secretary-general. UNSCOM, set up by the Council as its autonomous technical agency for disarming Iraq, would be shunted aside to bureaucratic irrelevance. Small wonder Baghdad says it would respond positively if the Council accepted Annan's suggestions.
The purpose of the game is clear. It is to end the sanctions. Saddam has been lobbying for years to have them phased out and is now proposing that the Council at least set a timetable. With oilfields second only to Saudi Arabia's, his credit is good and he has been dangling the prospect of payment before creditors like Russia and France as well as post-sanctions contracts to all comers. Lifting the sanctions would give him the means to pursue his obvious ambition: to dominate the Arabian peninsula and all its oil.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.