Each day, weather permitting, American pilots head into Iraq to patrol the northern and southern "no-fly" zones established almost a decade ago to keep Saddam Hussein in his box.
"Patrol" is a misleading word for what is actually a forgotten little war between the United States and Iraq. Though some British planes participate, this is primarily an American show. Some 500 sorties a month are flown, the mission being to keep Saddam's air force grounded and to take out any of the missile and anti-aircraft units that challenge the American planes with some frequency.
American elections are not won by foreign-policy debates, and the four leading presidential candidates - Gore, Bradley, Bush, and McCain - have had much more to say about taxes and campaign reform than about how they would handle such rogue regional regimes as exist in Libya, North Korea, and Iraq. Iraq's is one that could bite the new president, whoever he may be, soon after he takes office.
Saddam has treated the Clinton administration with contempt. It would not be surprising then, if he tried early on to test the mettle of a new president to see what weaknesses and strengths he displays after the Clinton administration.
Though an American-led coalition sent Saddam's forces reeling after their attempted occupation of Kuwait, he claims he won that "Mother of All Battles."
He not only remains in power, but he has been able to regroup his military, rebuild some of his country, and continue developing the weapons of mass destruction he was required to dismantle after the ill-fated Kuwait venture.
Recently the US Navy intercepted a Russian tanker in the Persian Gulf smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of United Nations trade sanctions, imposed after the Kuwait invasion. They can be lifted only after Iraq has proved to the UN Security Council that it has actually destroyed its weapons of mass destruction.
The tanker incident is part of the pattern of Saddam's defiance of the international community. Last week, he announced he would not admit UN inspectors charged with checking on his disarmament program. An earlier UN team was allowed to operate under difficult and restricted conditions but was withdrawn on the eve of American and British air strikes in 1998.
With even such limited inspection suspended, it is difficult to know what Saddam may have been up to. A report by Barbara Crossette of The New York Times last week suggested that a secret biological weapons project may be the most dangerous corner of his armory, which also includes nuclear, missile, and chemical programs.
Milton Leitenberg, a biological weapons expert at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, told the Times that Iraq may be trying to develop a new viral agent, possibly in underground laboratories at a military complex near Baghdad where Iraq first chased away inspectors six years ago.
British experts have suggested that Iraq may have manufactured the organism that causes bubonic plague.
Australian diplomat Richard Butler, who headed the UN's earlier Iraqi inspection program, said biological programs have always been the most difficult to uncover.
The US presidential candidates have generally been lean to date on details of their foreign-policy plans.
They have, however, subscribed to the two basic tenets that traditionally motivate US foreign policy, namely the national interests of the US and the moral values, such as democracy, that most Americans believe should be engendered in countries elsewhere.
Both factors apply in the case of Iraq. With a wily leader like Saddam, unafraid of taunting and testing American leadership, it would not be surprising if Iraq soon pops up on the list of priorities confronting the next president.
* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society