In altering its approach to Iraq, the Clinton Administration is blundering into a policy that allows Saddam Hussein to rebuild a deadly arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. That makes it all the more repugnant that the Administration is trying to discredit and intimidate Scott Ritter, a former top United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq who is rightly sounding an alarm about the developments in Baghdad.
Seven years of economic sanctions and contested arms inspections in Iraq since the end of the Persian Gulf war have fatigued the Security Council. Mr. Hussein has several times manipulated the simmering confrontation to force Washington to reinforce its military presence in the region, at considerable expense. But for all the frustration, the clear lesson from these encounters is that only the credible threat of force can keep Iraq from resuming its weapons programs.
Washington has now muted that threat even as Mr. Hussein has blocked the most critical avenues of inspection. Though cameras and censors continue to operate at suspected weapons sites, nearly all spot inspections have been banned by the Iraqis. Baghdad's scientists and engineers are essentially free to concoct biological and chemical toxins at unmonitored sites and install them in bombs and missiles. The Clinton Administration, in effect, has suspended its effort to keep Iraq from rearming.
The Clinton Administration maintains that its restraint has allowed the Security Council to deal directly with Iraq, giving members a better appreciation of Mr. Hussein's defiance. The Council, in turn, has rebuffed Iraqi appeals to lift the embargo on most oil sales. That is fine, but the embargo is just one piece of the puzzle and the Security Council shows little desire to deal with the rest. Even without oil revenues, Mr. Hussein has more than enough money to finance new weapons. Absent aggressive inspection, he will do just that.
Mr. Ritter, an American who directed and conducted inspections in Iraq, has correctly warned that the world has largely lost its ability to hunt down Iraqi weapons projects. He resigned in protest, disclosing that the United States blocked several inspections to avoid a new confrontation with Baghdad. Mr. Ritter also reported that many of the best intelligence tips about Iraqi activities came from Israel, an understandable source given Israel's vulnerability to Iraqi attack.
Mr. Ritter has been rewarded for this truth telling with a stern warning from the United Nations, a Federal criminal investigation into his association with Israel and the ludicrous assertion of American officials that he does not know what he is talking about. This treatment is an embarrassment to the country.
Every day that passes without spot inspections gives Iraq more time to rearm. While Washington is toasting its success in uniting the Security Council behind the embargo, Mr. Hussein is busy building weapons that can threaten the entire Middle East.