Sooner or later, the United States will find itself in another crisis with Iraq. To the Clinton administration’s credit, it seems to be attempting to de-escalate the standoff on weapons inspections and dampen expectations that future Iraqi antics will be met with the use of force. The administration needs to go further. The current lull in action and emotion should give the administration time to quietly reassess American vital interests, whether they can be really threatened by an already weak Iraq, and whether they are promoted by the costly policy of reacting to Saddam’s periodic and cynical provocations with military deployments.

In the most recent crisis, the administration was ready to conduct extensive air strikes to reduce Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. Yet such strikes would have failed. Production facilities for chemical and biological weapons are fairly small, portable, and hard to locate. The threatened strikes apparently did cause Iraq to grant weapons inspectors access to its presidential palaces. Yet Washington’s willingness to risk American lives achieved only a symbolic victory. The inspectors admitted that they did not expect to find anything in the palaces because Saddam had had time to move the facilities before the inspectors arrived.

Even in the unlikely event that intrusive inspections, air strikes, or grinding economic sanctions did result in the elimination of all of Iraq’s prohibited facilities, more weapons could be produced using widely available commercial technologies. The only way to assure that Iraq does not produce such weapons would be to launch a ground attack on Baghdad to remove Saddam from power. President George Bush recognized the pitfalls of that option during the Gulf War and declined to have America sink into the morass of Iraq’s internal politics.

Most Americans would, of course, like to see a peaceful democratic government supplant Saddam’s odious dictatorship and have Baghdad renounce any ambitions to build weapons of mass destruction. But in the real world, that benign scenario is most improbable. As a practical matter, the United States must resign itself to Iraq’s possession of biological and chemical weapons--something Washington seemed willing to do prior to the Gulf War. The current U.S. policy contravenes reality. Iraq--with its armed forces in shambles because of the war and years of economic sanctions--is comparatively weak compared with its prewar condition and is much less of a threat to its neighbors. Moreover, many of its neighbors--including Iran, Syria, and Libya--also have biological or chemical weapons (Israel is even reported to possess nuclear weapons). It is unclear why the United States treats a weakened Iraq differently than it does those nations. None of the rogue states has a long-range missile that can carry such weapons to the United States.

Instead of pursuing the unattainable goal of preventing Iraq from ever obtaining biological or chemical weapons, the United States should concentrate on reducing the chance that Iraq’s weapons would be used on American territory. Any U.S. air or ground attack on Iraq could cause Iraq to seek revenge in the only way it could-by sponsoring a terrorist attack on U.S. soil with weapons of mass destruction. Those attacks can be devastating and are very difficult to deter, prevent, detect in a timely fashion, or mitigate.

One other American interest is also adversely affected by an unrelentingly hostile U.S. policy toward Iraq--ensuring that Persian Gulf oil continues to flow to the U.S. economy. The main threats to the continued flow of oil--if there are any at all--are Iran and instability in Saudi Arabia, not a ground invasion of Saudi Arabia by Iraq. Iraq’s weakened ground forces probably could not sustain an invasion of the Saudi kingdom over such an extended distance. In contrast, Iran is now stronger than Iraq and benefits relatively any time the United States strikes the Iraqi military. Instead of conducting its policy of “dual containment,” the United States should pay more attention to the balance of power in the region and be wary of disrupting it even more than it has been already.

Instability in Saudi Arabia may be the greatest threat to the flow of oil. As demonstrated by its reaction to the recent crisis, the Saudi government fears that threat more than it fears Saddam. With an eye toward the sympathies of its population for Iraq, the Saudi government was reluctant to allow U.S. strike aircraft to use bases in the kingdom to attack Iraq. Military deployments and periodic attacks on Iraq by the United States could fuel such instability.

The United States needs to learn to intervene militarily only when its vital interests are at stake. As schoolboys grow to be adults, they come to see that they need to let minor quarrels “slide off their backs” rather than fighting over every perceived affront. They also learn not to meddle gratuitously in disputes involving other parties. Nation states--particularly superpowers--need to profit from the same lessons.