Bill Clinton has a duty to continue pressuring Saddam

It may take some time to tell whether the agreement Kofi Annan brought back from Baghdad this week will stick, and it will need to be tested quickly. But Saddam Hussein has a dismal record for honoring his commitments, so chances are good this confrontation over his quest for weapons of mass destruction will be repeated. The question then becomes when and on whose terms.

As the U.N. secretary-general was flying to Baghdad on a French presidential jet late last week, U.S. Air Force transports were flying to Israel with a cargo of improved Patriot missiles — just in case Saddam Hussein decided to answer the chants of Palestinian demonstrators calling on him to strike Tel Aviv with some of his remaining Scud missiles.

One thing Saddam already has achieved — unintentionally — is to demonstrate that U.S.-Israel relations remain close and strong despite personal and policy strains between President Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Clinton administration officials made it clear that this time they would not demand Israeli restraint if attacked by Saddam, although they would have preferred that the Netanyahu government toned down its threats to retaliate.

That's the opposite of the successful U.S. strategy of speaking very loudly and brandishing many very big sticks.

The president made no secret of the vast array of armaments he was deploying to strike Saddam: B-1 bombers for their maiden combat missions, a new class of smart bombs, specially designed deep-penetrating bombs to incinerate underground bunkers of chemical and biological weapons and upgraded Stealth fighters. In addition, there is the usual array of submarines, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, electronic warfare planes and troops.

The highly detailed computer-generated maps used to train pilots for finding targets in Baghdad showed up on the television news programs along with demonstrations of the latest weapons. Even the outline of the battle plan — four days of intensive, round-the-clock bombing — was leaked to coincide with Annan's trip to Baghdad.

The psychological warfare was being conducted out in the open for Saddam and all his friends to see. Clinton, concerned that Saddam's Russian interlocutors might not impress upon him the seriousness of American determination to act, wanted to make sure no one thought he might be bluffing.

The administration got burned in November when it contracted out its diplomacy to Russian Foreign Minister Yvgeny Primakov, Saddam's old friend and patron, who put together a flimsy deal that collapsed almost immediately, creating the present crisis.

This time the U.S. buildup and saber-rattling continued while Annan was in Baghdad and even after the initial announcement that he had a deal.

Even if Saddam agrees to the unrestricted inspections that the United States has been demanding, experience suggests that he will soon begin cheating and this crisis will be repeated once more. Therefore it is essential that Clinton take several decisive actions:

Immediately, in a matter of hours and not days, he should send teams of U.N. inspectors to as many of the most suspect hiding spots for forbidden weapons, starting with the presidential palaces. UNSCOM inspectors should be told to come up with the toughest list they can, and seal off other sites high on the target list until inspectors can get there. Don't give Saddam any time to begin moving his stash or devising a new concealment system.

He should also keep U.S. forces in place, at full strength and on alert for an extended period to test the latest agreement and to reinforce American determination to act and to back up the inspectors.

The president should announce today that there will be no more repeating this cycle of negotiating every time Saddam wants to take a time out so he can hide something else. Clinton should declare that we intend to make this agreement stick and will enforce it vigorously, and then do it.

Unless Clinton acts quickly to test Saddam, the Iraqi leader will not only begin cheating, but the administration will also risk losing its credibility, resolve and momentum, which will make it difficult to re-mount the threat in a credible manner when the need inevitably arises.

The president had already committed himself to taking military action if Saddam failed to meet American demands. To accept anything less than the total access he has insisted upon will be a sign of weakness and an invitation to Saddam to cheat again.

It may not be easy to maintain troop readiness. Clinton can expect pressure from his political foes at home who, for their own partisan purposes, will try to raise the political stakes so they can declare his policies a failure. He must be as tough in resisting that pressure as he has been in deflecting media questions about his sex life.

If it turns out Saddam blinked, Clinton's international stature will be enhanced, and he may test that first in the Middle East by trying to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Meanwhile, Palestinian street demonstrators burning American and Israeli flags and calling for Saddam to gas Israelis reinforce Netanyahu's criticism of the Palestinian commitment to peace. Yasser Arafat and his supporters may view the protests as expressions of frustration over the stalled peace process. But to understand how lame and unacceptable that is one need only ask how Palestinians would feel if Israeli crowds began calling for the gassing of Ramallah or Nablus.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.