OXFORD, ENGLAND — Oxford, England. Why are Americans so impatient? At the beginning of the year, President Bush moved with such alacrity from a policy of sanctions to a declaration of war against Iraq, there was no time to see if sanctions were working. Then, the war over, he rushed away from the battlefield with indecent haste and had to be cajoled back by Britain and France to help save the Kurds from a pogrom.
Once the imminent threat of disaster was moderated, but certainly not annulled, he sent Gen. Colin Powell to look things over and to announce that the Americans would be pulling out of the Kurdish enclaves ''very soon.'' Again the British and the French had to lean on Washington, and now it's been decided to keep a significant Euro-American watchdog force permanently over the border in neighboring Turkey.
Yet, here we are at the edge of the American precipice of fast frustration once again. Saddam Hussein has played cat and mouse with the United Nations inspectors sent to dismantle his nuclear bomb-making machine and, after a month of threats, Mr. Bush now appears about to order an air strike.
But on what? We were told during the great high-precision war by no less than Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf that his air forces had bombed away Iraq's nuclear industry, lock, stock and barrel. Has the marksmanship improved in the interlude? Has the capacity of the Iraqis to foil an attack by deep underground storage decreased? Or is Washington actually prepared to invade Baghdad, push Saddam Hussein to one side or even kill him to get its hands directly on the levers of the Iraqi state, and thus make sure it is in full control of whatever is going on?
But if we still have time to think before President Bush again pulls the trigger, let us consider the merits of the case.
By any standard, this single nuclear weapon is in an early stage of development. Although the core materials were successfully protected from bombing, much of the supporting facilities were destroyed. Putting it all back together will take years and will not so easy as the first time around, given the new consciousness among the nuclear-have powers about the underground traffic in smuggled bomb components.
Even on the worst assumption that Iraq's scientists could cobble something together in the backyard, how could Saddam Hussein use it? It would not be miniaturized like modern weapons. It could not be mounted on a rocket, or even carried in the proverbial suitcase. It probably couldn't fit into an airplane. And if it did, it would be slow flying and easily shot down. Perhaps it could be trucked -- to where? To the border with Kuwait or, with Jordan's connivance, to Israel's? But for what purpose? It would be destroyed in an air raid before Saddam Hussein had time to utter his second word of blackmail.
The fact of the matter is that there is time on the U.N.'s side. And the best weapon the outside world has is the one it had before the war -- the remorseless weight of total sanctions.
Sanctions like these have never been used before. Not against South Africa. Not against Cuba. Against Iraq, they're almost watertight. The number of occasions they've been seriously breached since last August can be counted on the fingers of one hand. While they continue Saddam Hussein has no way to restore his industrial base nor rebuild his army. Iraq is a shattered country, and every day rams home to the populace the awesome cost of Saddam Hussein's misadventure.
No one who supported the use of sanctions rather than war said they would work quickly. Not Zbigniew Brzezinski, nor Colin Powell, nor Sam Nunn. The point about sanctions is that they grind on, relentlessly giving no quarter, allowing no respite.
Without the war they could have taken two or three years to produce an effect. With the destruction caused by the bombing, it may take only another year.
One useful way of giving sanctions an extra -- of potency would be for the U.N. to take up the suggestion of Britain's ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to put a warrant out for Saddam Hussein's arrest on charges of war crimes. Washington never picked up on the idea and inexplicably it's been allowed to die. Not only should it be resurrected, it should be broadened to include Saddam Hussein's senior officers and henchmen. If they set foot outside Iraq -- as many now do -- they should fear arrest.
Life for these bon viveurs who love to visit Geneva and Amman would be reduced to the frustrations of the drab monotony of life in Baghdad.
The war party promised us many things that were never delivered -- the end of Saddam Hussein, the end of his war-fighting machine, the end of his nuclear threat and, to boot, a new world order offering peace in the Middle East and democracy in dictatorial backwaters. In fact, this war brought none of the above. Sanctions were the better and surer course last August, and they are the better and steadier course today.
Syndicated columnist Jonathan Power writes on Third World affairs.