New York -- SADDAM Hussein has committed the one blunder that may unite the United States and the United Nations again behind the renewed use of force against Iraq. He tried to hide machinery to make nuclear weapons and got caught.
If Saddam does not follow through on his order to grant U.N. inspection teams instant and full access to all facilities -- or if there are any doubts or questions -- President Bush should move swiftly to orchestrate international support for surgical air strikes against suspected nuclear, chemical and biological weapons sites.
Bush, not a man to bluff, is headed toward that military option. "We've got to bomb Iraqi weapons depots and hideouts sooner or later," said a senior and informed administration official.
It is not nearly enough for the Iraqi News Agency to announce that Saddam was "shocked" to hear his troops would not let U.N. inspectors do their job and that he ordered future good behavior.
Just so in "Casablanca" was the prefect of police "shocked" to learn of illegal gambling in Rick's Cafe.
U.S. intelligence has been tracking the multi-truck convoy for days, ever since Iraqi troops began loading machinery onto the trucks at a suspected nuclear site. Satellites have been following the convoy's every movement as it first traveled 80 miles this way and then many miles in another direction. U.S. intelligence led the U.N. inspectors to the convoy on Friday.
Now Saddam knows this convoy cannot hide. But he does not know what else we know. Far more disconcerting, we do not know what else we do not know.
An Iraqi defector recently revealed the location of several nuclear sites previously unknown to Washington. Several chemical and biological plants and storage areas must have similarly escaped U.S. detection and air attack.
The U.S. and the U.N. went to war in good part to destroy Iraq's growing potential to wage war with these weapons of mass destruction. The allies cannot afford to risk Saddam's holding on to this capability.
There are two ways to lower this risk: Saddam's instant $l compliance with U.N. inspection rights, and pinpoint bombing attacks.
Many administration officials, and particularly Pentagon officials, still prefer the peaceful route. They still believe that U.N. sanctions blocking all non- humanitarian exports to Iraq will work and lead to Saddam's downfall.
But increasingly, key administration officials are arguing that full U.N. sanctions cannot survive tragic reports of widespread pestilence and dying babies.
They fear that Saddam will be able to use this wedge to insure his own survival, as well as the survival of some weapons of mass destruction. They say that the only way to help the Iraqi people and eliminate nuclear and chemical threats is to drive Saddam from power. And the only way to do that, they argue, is to start selective bombing.
Their case is persuasive. Renewed limited air strikes in unpopulated areas will rekindle Baghdad's sense of Saddam's vulnerability and his costs to Iraq's future. That could ignite Saddam's overthrow.
First, however, administration hawks have to contend with the Pentagon's zeal to stay out of Iraqi affairs entirely for fear of being drawn back into large-scale fighting.
This zeal to get out quickly whatever horrors happen in Iraq has sent the wrong signal to Saddam. It suggests to him that he can violate U.N. cease-fire terms, including inspections, without worrying about the ultimate sanction -- renewal of allied air attacks.
The danger of Saddam miscalculating American will and trying to develop some kind of biological, chemical or nuclear capability has to be considered grave.
Saddam would not have taken the chance of trying to save the nuclear weapons-making machinery in that convoy unless there were a real payoff. He did not run such risks for something inconsequential.
Bush's record once the war stopped has not been impressive. He did not enforce the ban on Iraq's use of helicopters. He allowed Saddam to slaughter Kurds and Shiites until faced with pictures of deaths linked to his geopolitical indifference.
But Saddam and his cohorts would do well to recall that, while Bush can be shortsighted, he has a well-established disposition to follow failure with force.