IN THE MOST STINGING INDICTMENT YET of the Clinton administration's Iraq policy, United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter resigned last week. He wrote that Washington's unwillingness to hold Iraq to the letter of numerous Security Council resolutions "makes a mockery of the [U.N. weapons-inspection] mission." In an interview, Ritter was even more emphatic: "I've poured my heart and soul into disarming Iraq, and this means I was wasting my time. It means we lost the Gulf War. . . . The whole world should be shamed by this."

And particularly the Clinton administration. It has been worse than incompetent regarding Iraq: It has been duplicitous. In early August, faced with renewed defiance by Saddam Hussein, the administration radically altered longstanding American policy. Instead of threatening -- and if necessary using -- force to compel Iraqi compliance with U.N. mandates, the administration is backing down. Worst of all, the president's agents stead-fastly maintain they haven't changed a thing.

There have always been three broad approaches to handling post-Gulf War Iraq. First, containment: Some strategists believe that simply deterring Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction will protect our interests and that intrusive U.N. inspections intended to eliminate such weapons are unnecessary. Second is the administration's policy, which one official calls Whack-a-Mole: Support the weapons-inspection mission (UNSCOM) and continued economic sanctions, and whenever Saddam acts up intolerably, whack him with military force. Third is the policy I support: Admit that the administration's middle-ground approach is not sustainable, will not achieve its objectives, and will fritter away America's position of strength. Only overthrowing Saddam Hussein can eliminate the Iraqi threat to peace.

The administration has now clearly adopted the first policy, while continuing to give lip service to the second. Had the policy been changed because the administration concluded that sanctions and inspections had failed, or that the containment model was superior for reasons of either cost or benefit, it could (and should) have said so. It could have explained why its calculus had changed and defended its new approach. Some would have applauded. Others would have objected vigorously to reneging on the vow to eliminate Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction capability and shifting to a policy of containment. And the debate would have been on.

But instead of announcing the change of policy forthrightly, the secretary of state has chosen to mislead. Hailed at the time of her swearing-in as one who could explain foreign policy to the American people, Madeleine Albright has apparently decided to spin them instead. She asserts in public that our policy is to "keep Saddam in his cage," but she does something quite different behind the scenes. Consider just one aspect of the deception. NBC, then the Washington Post, reported that for several months the Department of State had discouraged UNSCOM from mounting aggressive "challenge" inspections of Iraqi sites suspected of involvement with weapons of mass destruction. The Post said that Albright herself had telephoned chief U.N. inspector Richard Butler on August 4 to cancel two inspections poised to be launched from Baghdad.

Confronted with this report, Secretary Albright denied it: "I have never told Ambassador Butler how to do his job." Pressed for details, according to the Post, "she and those speaking for her declined to answer further questions about her August 4" conversation. Just days later, however, the secretary not only acknowledged speaking with Butler, but she argued that UNSCOM should not muddy the waters by proceeding "with intrusive inspections [the Iraqis] would have blocked anyway." "In this context," writes Secretary Albright, Butler "came to his own conclusion that it was wiser" not to proceed with the UNSCOM inspections. This is too cute by half. The press has reported overwhelming evidence that the administration made comprehensive efforts to rein in UNSCOM over a period of several months, even using the CIA to hamper UNSCOM's work. Butler is saying publicly, "I will not preside over an empty shell," and speculation about his own resignation is now inevitable, fueled by leaks from the U.N. secretary general's aides.

In fact, Albright is as good as arguing that if UNSCOM refrains from offending Saddam, Saddam will not offend us. The conventional term for this policy is appeasement. Secretary Albright understandably prefers recycled bluster: "We have ruled nothing out, including the use of force." Foreign diplomats, however, understood exactly what Albright was doing, and one of them said to the Washington Post, "Madeleine was very sensible, very realistic in avoiding a crisis with Iraq." Perhaps she, like the president she serves, needs a better strategy for dealing with the truth.

Rhetoric is not policy, especially in dealing with the hard man in Baghdad. Why is the secretary dissembling with her fellow citizens when the object of her policy -- Saddam Hussein -- understands better than anyone else that American policy has been dramatically reined in? Whom does she think she is deceiving, and for what purpose? Even when rhetoric yields to action, as in the cruise-missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, one wonders about the administration's real objective. Thus, in explaining the strike in Sudan, Albright and her colleagues assiduously avoid mentioning that Iraq may be producing chemical weapons in Sudan in an attempt to evade the UNSCOM inspection regime. Nor do they address why military action against terrorist groups makes sense, though such action against Saddam apparently does not.

Our ability to rally international coalitions in difficult circumstances depends on many things, including the strength of our interests, the resources at our disposal, and the character of our leaders. Most of all, it depends on our leaders' straightforwardness and the American people's consequent willingness to trust the government with difficult global responsibilities. The worst result of the administration's malfeasance on Iraq is not that it has allowed Saddam to escape from the "cage" that Secretary Albright talks about so much. It is that Americans and the rest of the world now see plainly a hollowness at the center of the Clinton foreign policy that no amount of spin can hide.

John R. Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. He was assistant secretary of state for international-organization affairs in the Bush administration.

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