The Clinton administration’s tough rhetoric concerning the U.N.’s search for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction belied its behind-the-scenes attempts to avoid another crisis by quashing the inspectors’ efforts to challenge the Iraqis. Such dissembling occurred because the administration had painted itself into a corner.

Some months ago, in the last crisis with Iraq, the administration originally claimed that air strikes would “thwart” Iraq’s ability to use or pursue weapons of mass destruction. It then reduced this claim to merely delaying or “substantially” reducing Iraq‘s ability to produce such weapons. Then leaks from the Pentagon indicated that destroying any weapons or production facilities would be difficult because their locations were unknown. This “would you believe” game began to resemble an episode of “Get Smart.”

In addition, U.S. allies had little stomach for military action against Iraq. To keep up appearances after it wisely called off the military strike, the administration had to take a rhetorical hard line on inspections.

Yet if the administration had been more honest initially about the efficacy of air strikes--and even the inspections--in eradicating Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, it would not have been caught with a public “stand tall” policy that was bound to come up short. Seven years of the most intrusive inspections in history have failed to uncover all of Iraq’s weapons. General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that ordinary hospitals, clinics, or fertilizer plants could be converted into labs for making biological or chemical weapons and then reconverted rapidly. Thus, the essentially portable weapons labs are difficult to find through intelligence or inspections.

Even if all of Iraq’s weapons could be found and destroyed, new ones could be made with commercially available ingredients. In short, any get-tough policy--inspections or military action--towards Iraq or any of the other rogue states in the Middle East with such weapons programs will not stop them from possessing those arsenals. The United States must resign itself to managing proliferation rather than preventing it. Moreover, the United States should stop being a jailer to a war--and sanctions--exhausted Iraq that is now much less of a threat to its neighbors. Other wealthy powers--inside and outside the region--can better balance Iraq.