The continuing, little-noticed air war over Iraq is really a battle of wills: Saddam Hussein's will to retain power and rebuild his military machine versus the will of the United States and Britain to ensure that neither happens.
But this containment by air power has dragged on with no end in sight. Some members of the United Nations Security Council are eager to find a resolution. The new US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, has a Dayton-like task ahead of him in forging a compromise.
And Iraq's people remain squeezed between tough international sanctions and a dictator unwilling to meet UN demands or divert military spending to help save Iraqi children.
Any resolution will require compromise. For starters, Iraq could stop aiming missiles and antiaircraft fire at Western jets patrolling the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Thus it could avoid the bombing runs that, so far this year, equal two-thirds of the number of missions flown against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict.
When the air war ceases, the US, UN, and Iraq could hammer out a way to resume the weapons inspections halted by Saddam last year. This would restart the process of fulfilling the Security Council resolutions that ended the 1991 Gulf War. Then the sanctions would eventually be lifted.
Why should things come in this order, rather than the US and Britain simply calling off their jets, dismantling the no-fly zones, and allowing the Iraqis to get back to normal life?
Because Iraq remains a country gripped by a regime that has invaded one neighbor, waged an eight-year war against another, repressed its own people, and developed capabilities to build and launch chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. It can't simply be sighed over and allowed to go on its way - no matter how disturbing conditions in Iraq, or how much the Russians want full oil exports resumed so Baghdad can repay old debts to Moscow.
Saddam is counting on the West to suffer "Iraq fatigue." The US, instead, should initiate a diplomatic offensive to revive the inspections. A resolution to that effect, sponsored by Britain and the Netherlands, is already before the Security Council. The "carrot" for Iraq is a commitment to start loosening sanctions as soon as an agreement is reached. A first step might be expansion of the oil-for-food program already in place. Further loosening would hinge on subsequent Iraqi cooperation with UN inspectors.
Saddam may want no part of any agreement that dims his dreams of military glory. And the hope of better lives for his people appears not to move him. Just recently a ship seized as it was leaving Iraq was found to contain consumer products, including baby food, which are in notoriously short supply inside the country. That undercut Iraq's claim of hardship from sanctions.
Saddam should be served notice, yet again, that the will to hold him to the disarmament obligations he signed in 1991 won't fade away.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society