Is It Here-We-Go-Again Time in the Gulf? : Bush rattles his saber, but needs to stay close to the U.N.

Iraq, a rather large country with a rather foolhardy man in charge, is big enough to closet any number of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in its many hillsides, valleys and mountains. Months ago, after the cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf War, with U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for on-site inspection by U.N. teams, Baghdad hastened to assure everyone that it had no nuclear weapons program of any kind. But when international inspectors made a surprise visit to a military base cloaking uranium enrichment equipment, Iraqi guards fired warning shots over their heads and drove them away. Subsequently Baghdad admitted that, yes, it did have enrichment programs--three of them in fact--but no nuclear weapons program.

You could take Saddam Hussein's word for it.

Fortunately, no one in his right mind proposed to do that, and in fact the United Nations and the United States continue to insist on unlimited, unannounced, on-site inspection of any facility the United Nations cares to examine for evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. But, acting as if he had not earned the rightful condemnation of most nations of the world and had not totally lost the war, Hussein proposed to permit U.N. inspections only under a raft of absurd and enfeebling conditions.

HUSSEIN'S OBJECTION: World diplomacy must convince this dangerous and sometimes uncomprehending leader that he is in no moral or geopolitical position to put any conditions on U.N. resolutions that his government accepted to end the war. President Bush has taken a step in that direction by agreeing to Riyadh's request for the re-stationing of Patriot missiles on Saudi territory and by alerting the Pentagon to get ready to fly in more air power if necessary.

BUSH'S HOPE: Wednesday the President publicly expressed the perhaps wistful view that further military action in the Gulf will not be necessary and that Hussein will soon return to his senses and stop stonewalling the inspections. That vision of the Iraqi president is of course at odds with that of a man who needlessly exposed his nation and his people to large-scale military punishment earlier this year. But we do take comfort in Bush's evident effort to keep the rhetorical volume down--and to keep the emphasis on a peaceful resolution of the impasse high.

While the American impulse to drive a stake through this vampire's heart is never far from the surface, in fact the triumph of U.S. policy in the Gulf was its dogged multinationalism. Nothing that the Western allies did was done without the legitimizing mantle of U.N. resolutions. That was a key element in a success that was not only military but also diplomatic. No one imagines, for instance, that U.S. diplomatic efforts to organize an Arab-Israeli peace conference would have gotten even this far had it not been for the effective use of U.S. military and diplomatic power in the Gulf War.

But all that has been achieved will be put at risk if the President abandons patient, step-by-step networking with the Security Council. The fact that Bush so far shows no sign of losing his way on this crucial point is the only reassuring element in this latest Gulf psychodrama.

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