As it calculates the potential costs of attacking Iraq, the US may have already written off as a casualty the very cause for which it may be going to war: the United Nations' hunt for Baghdad's biological and chemical weapons.
The Clinton administration and its allies are publicly expressing a hope that military force, or the looming threat of it, may compel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to rescind his decision to bar inspections by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM).
That hope is being echoed by governments that had opposed using force against Iraq in the last confrontation in February. Meeting in the Gulf sheikdom of Qatar, eight Arab states yesterday warned "the Iraqi government is held responsible for any consequences from its refusal to back down from its decision to expel the UN weapons inspectors."
Privately, US officials appear to have accepted that airstrikes would mean the end of UNSCOM's inspections. And since Saddam realizes he will not get UN sanctions against Iraq lifted, he has no incentive to cooperate with inspections anyway. With his chemical weaponsmaking capability, he remains a threat to either the world's main oil-producing region or Israel, or both, officials say.
"If the US strikes, how can it be considered coherent with the possible return of UNSCOM?" says a European diplomat in Washington. "Nobody is happy about that. It's a risk. But it has to be considered within a broader framework."
The UN monitors packed up Wednesday and left Iraq, citing the looming possibility of attack by the growing force of American aircraft and cruise missile-armed ships in the Gulf.
Other experts see more cynical reasons for the apparent US willingness to sacrifice UNSCOM. While it has been successful in rooting out much of Iraq's illicit weapons, it has become harder for the US to support them amid pressure from France, Russia, and others to ease sanctions so they can resume business with Baghdad, they say.
Furthermore, the Iraqis have become enormously adept at concealing components of their weapons programs, making it unlikely that UNSCOM will ever uncover them all. To continue the effort means a future of periodic showdowns with Saddam that are expensive, further straining an already overstretched US military and doing little to end his grip on power.
"I think the US has come to the point where it can no longer support UNSCOM," asserts Scott Ritter, a former inspector who quit in anger over what he says was a decision by Washington earlier this year to gradually abandon UNSCOM.
Indeed, since a clash was averted by UN mediation in February, there has been a notable shift in the Clinton administration's policy. In February, the US beat loudly the drums of war. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright likened Saddam to Hitler, while President Clinton asserted that UNSCOM was critical to the future "of our grandchildren."
Since then, however, Washington has pressured UNSCOM to cancel especially intrusive inspections. US officials have also signaled that US policy to "contain Saddam" will now emphasize a tightening of the sanctions and ensuring that he makes no move to threaten Iraq's neighbors by maintaining a strong US military presence in the Gulf.
Given this, the question of what the US hopes to achieve through airstrikes remains unclear. US officials say attacks targeted at his illicit weapons facilities, the Special Republican Guard and other security pillars of Saddam's regime, would "degrade" his ability to threaten others and could trigger a coup by his opponents in the Iraqi military.
Many experts, however, express considerable doubts about these objectives. Instead, they say, the US airstrikes will be intended more as punishment for Saddam's defiance and as a way of restoring credibility Washington lost when it failed to act on a threat to immediately use force after Iraq began limiting UNSCOM inspections in August.
"If force is used well, it is to achieve a goal like the 1991 Gulf War to get Iraq out of Kuwait," says a European diplomat in Baghdad. "But if force is used now, what goal will be achieved? To punish Iraq? That language is not in the UN Charter."
Nor do Iraqi officials show any sign of wavering in their defiance: "We are ready to confront any military strike," says Trade Minister Mohamed Mehdi Saleh.
Despite the uncertain goals of airstrikes, the US appears to be in a stronger diplomatic position than in February. France and Russia, Iraq's traditional supporters in the UN, this time "deplore" Baghdad's decision to end cooperation with UNSCOM.
Defense Secretary William Cohen's swing through the Gulf last week reportedly yielded promises of support from Saudi Arabia and other key allies. In February, only Kuwait was ready to help.