In 1991, the coup de grace of Operation Desert Storm's ground campaign was a daring maneuver that end-run Saddam Hussein's forces massed in Kuwait and secured their swift defeat.
Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf described this stratagem with a familiar football term, calling it a "Hail Mary" pass - typically a desperate, last-minute, bet-the-farm play.
Last weekend, a top Iraqi defector, Khidhir Abdul Abas Hamza, revealed just how close a thing the Gulf war actually was. In interviews with New York Times reporters Judith Miller and James Risen, Mr. Hamza disclosed that the covert nuclear weapons program he used to run for Saddam Hussein was within months of completing a crude atomic weapon when Desert Storm was unleashed. Had those in the United States who argued that economic sanctions be given "a few more months to work" been heeded, Saddam may have been in a position to use such a device -with unknown, but probably awful, consequences.
Mr. Hamza's insights, however, take on an even greater importance in light of the current situation in Iraq. The MIT-educated nuclear physicist warns that the team he trained and led is still in place and prepared to respond to the combination of incentives and capricious terror employed by Saddam to give him "the bomb" at the earliest possible moment.
Just how soon that will be, and how soon the Iraqi dictator's other weapons of mass destruction programs (chemical and biological arms and, among other things, the ballistic missiles with which they might be delivered) will be fully up and running again is a matter of speculation. Mr. Hamza knows, however, that it is a question of when, not if.
Now, with the renewed interruption (if not permanent cessation) of international inspections and the incipient erosion (if not the formally approved easing) of U.N. sanctions, that "when" would appear to be sooner rather than later. The best that can be hoped for from the present Clinton policy toward Iraq - if there can be said to be a policy - is that it will postpone somewhat the day of reckoning.
Even this seems too much to hope for given the past few days' disclosures. It turns out that the United States and Britain have been discouraging Ambassador Richard Butler from pursuing challenge inspection initiatives that might provoke Iraq. Saddam's carefully calibrated political barometer would not have missed this change in the atmospheric pressure against him. Without the strong backing of the only two major nations still committed to the inspection regime, the Iraqis knew they could trifle with it at will.
Worse, the feckless international response to Iraq's doing so has only emboldened Saddam further. The Clinton team has now explicitly embraced the practice of contracting out U.S. foreign policy to the United Nations and its secretary general, Kofi Annan - a practice the president and his secretary of state strenuously denied when they implicitly adopted it last winter. On Friday, the New York Times quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying: "In February, Kofi was proud of his ability to forestall a war with his personal intervention and guarantee. As long as Iraq doesn't do anything stupid, what's wrong with letting him try to fix it?"
For starters, Iraq is doing something which may or may not be stupid, but which is certainly dangerous. …