The Clinton administration is now on the verge of launching a military strike against Iraq without having a good reason for doing so. The real reason a strike is imminent is awful: to save face by punishing Iraq for tweaking the nose of the United Nations and the world’s only superpower.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen admitted as much when he said that the “credibility” of the United States and the United Nations was at stake. That justification has a Vietnam-War-era odor to it. Attempts to preserve its credibility kept the United States from cutting its losses and withdrawing from Vietnam much earlier than it did. Eventually, the United States suffered a far larger loss of credibility by getting bogged down in an war it could not win in a country without strategic significance.

In much the same way, U.S. credibility will ultimately be undermined if Washington is duped into playing a cat-and-mouse game that it cannot win with an Iraq that has been a much diminished threat to its neighbors since the Gulf War. The United States should avoid being suckered into a military strike merely for the testosterone rush that accompanies punishing Saddam Hussein. Past military strikes have not deterred Iraqi antics designed to make a monkey out of the United States, and the outcome this time is unlikely to be any different. The only option that would bring down Saddam’’s regime once and for all--invasion--entails a cost the United States and its allies are quite correctly unwilling to pay.

For public consumption, the White House argues, as it did last February, that air strikes would degrade Saddam’s nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities and compel him to allow U.N. inspectors back in to sniff out such weapons. Yet it is clear that air strikes would have, at best, only a limited prospect of success in achieving either of those objectives.

Nine months ago, the threat of air strikes may have made Saddam promise to allow inspections, but the promise had been broken by August and is in tatters today. The whole incident made the United States seem trigger-happy to Iraq’s neighbors as well as to countries outside the region that are anxious to resume normal commercial relations with Iraq. The United States received little support for its military muscle flexing, and the administration soon shifted its line: it decided that U.N. inspections were overrated and that military action would not guarantee unhindered access for the inspectors.

The threat of unilateral military strikes was abandoned temporarily for a very practical reason: the risk of toppling already shaky international support for continuing economic sanctions. The administration decided to lie low--that is, not press ahead with challenge inspections--and wait for Saddam to shoot himself in the foot by doing something obnoxious. After Iraq virtually ended cooperation with the United Nations, the United States seized the moment and was able to drum up private approval from European and Persian Gulf governments for a U.S. military strike.

Even Russia, which was nearing success in getting some relief from sanctions for Iraq, was dismayed by Saddam’s foolish behavior. But was it so foolish? It can be argued that Saddam has little to fear and perhaps even something to gain from continued economic sanctions or military strikes.

During Saddam’s reign Iraq has weathered two major wars and the most grinding economic sanctions in history. There’s no reason to conclude that more such hardships will change anything. The weakened Iraqi military remains more than strong enough to suppress domestic dissent. A National Security Council study reportedly concluded that, short of invasion, the United States had no good military options to use against Iraq. And economic hardship obviously doesn’t translate into political compliance with the demands of the nations imposing sanctions.

The unpleasant fact that the White House refuses to face is that Saddam may actually derive some benefit from the economic sanctions or a military strike. Both policies run the risk of producing a “rally ’round the flag” effect, which could make Saddam stronger domestically, and allow him to blame the West for Iraq’s problems.

Such an outcome is not uncommon: Fidel Castro was able to take advantage of U.S. economic sanctions and the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s to solidify his position in Cuba, and he’’s been successfully blaming the U.S. embargo for his country’’s economic ills ever since.

In short, as it did in Vietnam, the United States is once again getting stuck in a halfhearted battle that it cannot win. We should accept the small reduction in credibility that de-demonizing Saddam would entail to forestall the larger erosion of credibility that arises from continually being made a marionette that Saddam manipulates for his own ends.