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WHAT TO DO ABOUT SADDAM HUSSEIN, YET AGAIN

Once again Iraq has precipitated a "crisis" by canceling its February 1998 pledge to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. This time, though, the Clinton administration is not even threatening military action.

And for good reason, because no feasible military action would have a high probability of finding and destroying any existing stocks of weapons of mass destruction -- and even if it did, no feasible military action would prevent Iraq from later building or acquiring nuclear and biological weapons.

Air strikes, no matter how prolonged, would not solve even the short-term, let alone the long-term, problem. Despite eight years of international inspection, there is no certainty that Iraq does not have well-concealed, deeply buried, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons right now -- for all practical purposes, immune from destruction from the air.

More important, even if all existing weapons, materials, plants and laboratories could be destroyed, Iraq would retain the economic and scientific base to rebuild them in short order.

In light of that fact, one of the great mysteries about Saddam Hussein is why he sabotages every opportunity to have the economic sanctions imposed after the Gulf War lifted. For several years Russia, France, China and many Arab states have been itching to invest in and trade with an oil-rich Iraq, only to see Saddam act in such an outrageous manner that they have no choice but to drop plans to end the international blockade of Iraq.

A shrewd Saddam would cooperate with the U.N. inspectors, giving them free rein to go wherever they wanted. Even if they were to find and destroy all hidden weapons stocks, once that was done, they would declare Iraq to be free of weapons of mass destruction -- and the international economic sanctions would quickly be terminated. Thereupon, the oil would start flowing again, and Iraq would soon have hundreds of billions of dollars to quickly reconstitute its biological-weapons capability and become the world's next nuclear power.

The only way this scenario could be prevented would be through a full-scale invasion of Iraq, the replacement of the Saddam regime with a democracy and a prolonged occupation. But such action is politically impossible and for that reason alone not a workable option.

What, then, can be done? Given the political infeasibility, danger and futility of direct military action, what remains is a potential three-part economic, covert action and deterrent strategy:

Economic sanctions

The sanctions should be continued, and, if necessary, the United States should be prepared (probably along with Britain) to veto any Security Council resolution calling for the lifting of the international blockade.

The purpose of the sanctions would not be to force Iraqi compliance with the U.N. inspectors, for it has been amply demonstrated that this won't work. Rather, the purpose would be simply to deny Saddam Hussein billions of dollars in renewed oil revenues to rebuild his military machine to pre-Gulf War levels.

The moral issues associated with economic sanctions have been widely misconceived. Until a few years ago, it was true that the effect of the sanctions was to inflict misery on the Iraqi people, especially because of food and medicine shortages. Even so, the responsibility for this situation was Saddam Hussein's, and so there was a strong, if troubling, case to be made for not caving in to the ruthless moral blackmail game Saddam was playing.

In any case, in the past year or two the moral argument for lifting the sanctions has essentially lost whatever power it had. Iraq is now allowed to sell over $10 billion of oil annually, under U.N. supervision, to finance the importation of food and medicine and to start rebuilding its electrical and water purification systems, and even its schools.

Yet Saddam has refused to sell all the oil he could, and he has refused to allow increased private humanitarian assistance. Even so, U.N. officials report that average daily caloric intake has nearly doubled from 1,000 to 2,000.

Covert action

During the Cold War, the United States badly overused its covert action capabilities to overthrow regimes, and even to assassinate political leaders. The strategy often failed, backfired in the long run even when it worked in the short run and was morally indefensible.

Yet, because of the stakes involved, the absence of workable alternatives and the monstrous character of the Saddam Hussein regime, the United States should make every effort to get rid of Saddam by one means or another, especially by support of an internal Iraqi rebellion or a military coup. And if no other option exists, we should remember that no one had moral objections to the various efforts in World War II to assassinate Hitler.

Should this strategy work, the United States would then have not only the strategic interest but also a great moral responsibility to help bring about a stable democracy in Iraq. The strategic interest is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Even a democratic government in Iraq might choose to continue its pursuit of nuclear or biological weapons, for example, as a deterrent against Iran; on the other hand, it might not.

In any case, the replacement of the Saddam regime with a stable democracy is the best hope for ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

Deterrence

Should all else fail, and an Iraq under Saddam Hussein re-emerges as a major military power, the world will have to rely on deterrence: The weapons would exist, but no minimally rational leader could use them against a country that has the means to retaliate.

Sooner or later, all the major nations in the Middle East will have weapons of mass destruction, and the only hope for avoiding catastrophe will then be the emergence of the kind of balance of terror that, in the end, kept the overall Soviet-American peace for 50 years.

Not a pretty picture, to be sure, but the brute fact is that there is no way -- least of all a military way -- to prevent the continued spread of weapons of mass destruction to country after country. In the end, we may have no option but to learn to live with a Saddam armed with weapons of mass destruction, just as there will no option but to live with future unpleasant states similarly armed, including Iran and maybe even Libya.

After all, we have already learned to live with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, China and, probably, North Korea, and we are currently learning we have to live with Pakistan and India. It beats the alternative.

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