THE compromise that allowed a select group of U.N. nuclear inspectors to enter the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture has been paraded in Washington and Baghdad as a victory for the respective governments.
In the normal conduct of diplomacy one would conclude that any agreement that all sides claim as a victory represents the ideal diplomatic solution.
But if we have learned anything in dealing with Iraq, it is that normal diplomatic rules should not be applied to Saddam Hussein's regime unless one wants to accept the high probability of very nasty surprises.
Is this too cynical a view? Ask the Kuwaitis who bankrolled Iraq's war with Iran and were repaid with near annihilation.
Ask the Bush administration officials who, having tried to appease Iraq before the gulf war with trade advantages, loans, arms and sweet, ambiguous words, now have to justify this standard menu of international fare in an election year before a partisan audience and skeptical public.
How often these policy-makers must despair that we do not understand this is "normal" practice in relations among states.
But the response must be, "Iraq under Saddam Hussein was not and is not Belgium."
Normal diplomatic practice is applicable among states that have limited aims and are prepared to spend limited resources to achieve them. It is not applicable in dealing with a revolutionary -- totalitarian state willing to bet all of its resources on a gamble that it can win all.
It is surprising that U.S. and U.N. officials seem this week to be determined to learn this hard lesson all over again.
Several important principles were conceded to reach the agreement Sunday on the terms of the nuclear inspections.
An inspection of the Agriculture Ministry that had been illegally blocked was allowed to proceed without any commitment from Iraq that it would live up to its obligation to allow inspectors to go anywhere at any time in the future.
The right to select the inspectors, previously an exclusively U.N. right, was compromised, with Iraq being allowed to veto certain nationalities.
And this veto applied to inspectors from those nations that had supported U.N. action in defense of Kuwait!
In other words, only those countries that did not contribute personnel to support the Security Council's mandatory action to expel Iraq from Kuwait are to be judged fit to inspect Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction.
Worst of all, U.N. officials used the Iraqi phraseology of "neutrality" in describing this standard of acceptability.
The idea of becoming "neutral" and therefore acceptable by not supporting a council action is the type of Orwellian double talk that one had hoped the United Nations had abandoned when the Cold War ended.
What has Iraq agreed to? Nothing of significance, it seems.
There was no commitment that this will not happen again; in fact, the messages from Baghdad seem to guarantee that it will.
What has the United Nations gained? Only participation in a charade, fueling suspicion that there is not a firm hand on the tiller in the secretary general's office.
The most difficult question of all is what Washington thinks it has gained. Certainly not a commitment from Iraq to comply fully from now on with the cease-fire arrangements that were to end the gulf war and to dismantle Saddam Hussein's war machine.
Certainly not time to get through a difficult election campaign without his again challenging the United Nations and the United States and thereby reminding everyone of a military triumph that now seems to be less than complete.
Certainly not inspiration for the various opposition groups inside and outside of Iraq that would motivate them to cooperate enough to overthrow Saddam.
And certainly not a better issue than the mistreatment of U.N. inspectors that would provide a stronger justification for forceful action to bring home to Saddam the real costs of continuing his current policy.
Both the United States and the United Nations should recall that diplomatic firmness and a clear recognition of what the Iraqi regime was up to led to the triumphs of Desert Storm.
If these officials do not, more will have been lost this week than a treasure trove of documents.
And even more than an election may be lost before November.
David A. Kay, who led three inspections of nuclear sites in Iraq, is head of the Uranium Institute, an association that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy.