THE BRITISH proposal for fewer and smarter United Nations sanctions against Iraq is overdue. Unfortunately, it is hardly assured of passage in the U.N. Security Council.
For 11 years, the United Nations has kept a trade embargo on Iraq until weapons inspectors certify it free of weapons of mass destruction.
Current sanctions allow the country to import food and medicine; they also supervise oil sales for food purchases. But dictator Saddam Hussein keeps his people on the edge of starvation, blaming sanctions. He runs a large smuggling operation for his own aggrandizement.
The Bush administration came to office pledging to make sanctions work. The plan introduced by Britain would do that.
Instead of banning trade except for goods specifically exempted, it would allow trade except for military materiel explicitly prohibited. It would tighten oil controls and combat smuggling. The catch is a long list of "dual purpose" items to be examined case by case, too long for quick decision.
It is a good plan. One sign of that is Iraq's summary rejection, threatening to end oil sales through the U.N., knowing the world's thirst for its oil.
Iraq's champions among Security Council permanent members -- Russia certainly, China and France possibly -- are caught short and delaying. Russia proposes rolling over existing sanctions for another six months, the very sanctions it denounces.
The British-American plan will be a hard sell at the United Nations, where Washington has shot itself in the foot. The brutal dictator may simply have outlasted sanctions.
Not the least reason for reduced U.S. influence at the United Nations is the Bush administration failure to have a permanent representative in place. It has finally nominated the controversial John D. Negroponte. His hopes for a speedy confirmation have been set back by the Senate's own confusion.
In the midst of this, a U.N. study showed last week that drainage of the Tigris and Euphrates marshes has destroyed 90 percent of the vast wetland on which Marsh Arabs developed a distinct culture for thousands of years. That's how Saddam Hussein treats Iraq's citizens.
The Bush administration has the right approach to Iraq, which highlights its wrong approach to the United Nations. It needs the world body to contain the despot. The United Nations is no enemy. Neither are the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein is.