Reining In Weapons

The effort to keep weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands has been fumble-fingered of late.

First, growing indecisiveness over holding Iraq to its post-Gulf War agreement to dismantle nuclear, chemical, and biological armaments threatens to turn a milestone of arms control into a muddle.

Second, the US attack on a chemical plant in Sudan thought to produce ingredients for nerve gas has kicked up a storm of criticism.

Regarding Iraq, after years of sustaining a hard line on uncovering and destroying secret Iraqi weaponry, the United Nations and the United States appear to be wavering. A combination of factors is at work: Pressures from Russia, France, and others to ease up on Iraq; US preoccupation with President Clinton's problems; the world's preoccupation with a rolling financial crisis; and Saddam Hussein's opportunism in seizing this moment to foment a crisis of his own.

Another tussle with Iraq over arms inspections could seem a minor irritant right now. But it's a good deal more than that. Few tests may be more important for the world to pass than this one - drawing an indelible line between an aggressive dictator and weapons of mass destruction. Of late, however, Iraq has been drawing the lines, proclaiming no more inspections.

The Security Council has declared Iraq's moves unacceptable and renewed tough economic sanctions. But inspections should be renewed, too, with Australian diplomat Richard Butler still in charge and "intrusive inspections" still on the agenda. Military action is a last resort, but when dealing with Saddam, US and other nations must remember that it can't be taken off the table.

Any such action, of course, must be meticulously planned and executed to minimize danger to civilians and the possibility of hitting wrong targets.

Doubts linger whether the US upheld that standard with its missile assault on the plant outside Khartoum. The goal was to destroy any capability to produce toxic chemical agents.But Sudan protests that the only capability at the site was commercial pharmaceuticals.

The US has admitted commercial products were produced - as well as ingredients for weaponry. But it has been less than forthright with its proof.

If a mistake was made, amends are in order. US officials are now providing some added details about the soil samples they believe to be conclusive proof of weapons-related production. But the question isn't settled.

Keeping massively destructive weapons away from terrorists and tyrants requires secrecy, of course. Nothing about it is easy, and the trade-offs - such as continued tough sanctions in the face of hardships suffered by the Iraqi people - are agonizing.

But it can't be forgotten that this effort requires public support and international cooperation. Americans, and allies, must be given enough detail about US operations to know that Washington is acting responsibly.

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