The noose tightens about Saddam Hussein. Washington is yanking it. But don't count him out. Survive is what the Iraqi dictator does best.
It would be a fine thing for the suffering Iraqi peoples if the thug fell. But the Clinton administration ought not allow that to become its stated policy objective. Previous administrations embarrassed themselves by marking tinpot annoyances for ouster, notably Libya's Muammar el Kadafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro, who still stand.
It was bumptious of the administration to try so soon to persuade King Hussein of Jordan to boycott Iraq, but correct of it to try to end Saudi Arabia's boycott of Jordan. That dates from the Jordanian king's tilt toward Iraq during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Jordan needs Iraq's oil if it cannot get Saudi Arabia's. Jordan's truck traffic from the port of Aqaba to Iraq flows naturally from geography. It should rebound when Iraq has rejoined the community of nations.
The military movements show that the U.S. is still the dominant power in the Middle East and -- despite isolationist tugs in Congress and American society -- remains in the game. These are partly to buck up the courage of Jordan's King Hussein in providing asylum for the dictator's defecting relatives. And partly to dissuade a wounded Saddam Hussein from striking once more at Kuwait.
Kuwait saw no hostile military movement across its border. Administration sources leaked first the notion that Iraqi exercises were detected which pointed at Kuwait, and second that the defectors had warned the U.S. of the dictator's intention.
Iraq is suffering de facto dismemberment, economic strangulation, Arab isolation and the dictator's brutal whim. Isolation encouraged the palace infighting that propelled Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel and his circle to ostracism, exile and treason. As the architect of Saddam Hussein's arms buildup, the general can be, if he wishes, the best adviser on dismantling it.
A purge is going on inside Iraq of officers feared disloyal to him. Lest it be presumed that this must weaken the dictator fatally, it should be remembered that both Hitler and Stalin did the same.
Saddam Hussein desperately wants relief from the U.N. sanctions, especially in oil exports. No relief is possible until the U.N. official Rolf Ekeus certifies that all weapons of mass destruction are identified and destroyed. The problem for U.S. policy will come if Mr. Ekeus so certifies. The U.S. would not want sanctions lifted while Saddam Hussein remained in power, but that was never the U.N.'s rationale for them.
The administration should keep up the vigilance and the pressure, but with sophistication and patience. In this it deserves the bipartisan understanding and support of Congress.