THOUGH IT CHANGES LITTLE and solves nothing, the Clinton administration's decision to use force against Iraq last week was clearly the right one.

Since the Gulf War ground to a ragged halt in February 1991, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been trying ceaselessly to wriggle free of the constraints imposed on him by the United States and its allies. Through a combination of patience, guile, and the occasional act of brutal self-assertion, Saddam has sought to wear down and divide his opponents, to evade and subvert inspection of his massive arms-production program, shake off international economic sanctions, reestablish dominion over all Iraqi territory and, ultimately, to renew his drive to become the preponderant power in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Saddam's defeat at the hands of the allied coalition set him back and slowed him down, but it did not deflect him from his course; nor is anything short of his eventual departure from the scene likely to do so.

Saddam's recent incursion in the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq was opportunistic. It may even have been, in some measure, defensive. Since 1994 two Kurdish factions have been fighting each other for control of the region. This summer, the Iranians (who are at war with their own Kurdish rebels and have a long-standing grudge against Iraq) crossed into Iraqi territory and gave support to one of the Kurdish factions there. The other faction then turned to Saddam for help. Saddam seized the opportunity to limit Iran's influence inside Iraq and increase his own. By gaining access to the Kurdish town of Irbil he also stood to improve his ability to smuggle goods and supplies overland through Turkey, thereby circumventing the West's economic blockade.

Whatever their proximate cause and tactical significance, however, the Iraqi dictator's moves were also clearly intended to challenge the West and, in particular, the United States. In his choice of objective, and in his selection of the means for attaining it, Saddam aimed straight for the seams in the coalition position. Although Baghdad's ability to exert itself in the north and south has been constrained by Western military power and U.N. resolutions, those regions are still part of a single sovereign nation. And while the United States and its allies assert U.N. Resolution 688 calling on Iraq to desist from abusing the Kurds permits them to keep Iraqi aircraft from flying north of the 36th parallel, there has never been any matching ban on the use of ground forces there. When he sent over 30,000 Republican Guards north to attack Irbil and to put it back in the hands of his newfound Kurdish friends, Saddam may have hoped, both literally and figuratively, to slip in under the West's radar screen. Like Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland in 1936, Saddam apparently calculated that his enemies (or at least some of them) would be willing to shrug off his latest move as an "internal matter" in which outside interference could not be justified.

Faced with these tactics, and with a direct Iraqi refusal to heed its warnings, the United States had no choice but to respond. Not to have done so would have meant acquiescing in a violent change of the status quo.

A failure to act could only have served to bolster Saddam's standing with his people and his military, and to embolden him to undertake his next move. Hesitation or inaction on the part of the United States would also have sent a signal that our resolve was weakening and our willingness to stay the course in containing Saddam and confronting other regional aggressors was waning. Especially in light of the recent terrorist attacks on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, such a display of irresolution could have had serious consequences.

In responding to Saddam's latest act of aggression, the Clinton administration chose to launch cruise missiles against air-defense installations in southern Iraq and to extend northward the "no-fly zone" that has been in effect there since 1991. The objections to this course of action are unpersuasive.

First, some warn that the United States should not involve itself in the complexities of Kurdish politics. This is correct, but irrelevant. The United States has been trying to get the various Kurdish factions to patch up their differences and make common cause against Saddam. The United States does not seek to take sides with one group against the others, but rather to punish Saddam for his exploitation of their rivalry in pursuit of his own larger strategic goals. As one Pentagon official put it: "This has nothing to do with the Kurds and everything to do with Saddam."

Others complain that the administration's decision to strike sites in southern Iraq will do nothing to influence the situation in the north. This claim has merit, but is still beside the point. While the United States response may actually have impelled the Iraqis to withdraw their ground forces from Irbil, the city is now controlled by a faction beholden to Baghdad and apparently supported by Saddam's secret police. Short of striking directly at Iraqi forces in the vicinity -- a task that would require manned aircraft instead of pilotless cruise missiles, and would therefore entail greater risks of American and Iraqi civilian casualties -- the United States has no obvious way of influencing the situation on the ground.

Nor does it have any compelling need to do so. By hitting Iraqi air defenses in the south and expanding the no-fly zone, the United States has punished Saddam, while at the same time improving its ability to defend the vital oil fields of the southern Gulf and clearing the way for additional punitive actions, if and when they are required.

The two American strikes last week were measured, but they were substantial. Launching 44 cruise missiles, each packed with one or two thousand pounds of high explosives, was neither a "pinprick" attack nor a sustained, full- fledged strategic air campaign. The purpose of these strikes was to make Saddam and, even more, his military pay a price for their recent actions. With Iraq largely cut off from its prewar sources of military supply, lost hardware and flattened facilities will be difficult and expensive to replace. U.S. actions imposed real costs and constraints on Iraq. A bigger, wider attack, perhaps including ground force targets and key infrastructure and industrial installations in and around Baghdad, might have hammered the message home even more plainly, but it would also have risked civilian casualties and greater international discomfort. Given the nature of the provocation, the American response was probably about right.

What of those who worry that there was no legal justification for the American attacks? True, no specific, internationally approved sanction prohibited what Saddam has done or explicitly authorized a forceful American response. But the United States need not, and should not, seek approval for its every action from the United Nations. If justification is needed, U.N. Resolution 688 should be sufficient. Though Saddam may now cast himself as a friend to the Kurds, his record and intentions are clear enough. Reports that Iraqi soldiers rounded up and summarily executed opposition Kurdish leaders in Irbil serve as a reminder of Saddam's brutality. If the Iraqis are now engaged in piecemeal murder of Kurds rather than wholesale slaughter, the difference is merely one of degree.

By far the most important criticism is that by acting alone, the United States has alienated its allies and weakened the coalition that won the Gulf War. This claim, which is likely to be at the heart of most criticism of the administration's actions, must be taken with a substantial grain of salt. The vaunted coalition of 1990-91 was an odd lot of countries held together by the circumstances of the moment, by U.S. pressure, and by a shared fear and hatred of an expansionist Iraq. We should not be especially surprised or concerned if Syria, a minor partner in the Gulf War, or Russia, a passive observer, is a critic of the latest U.S. action. Neither country has anything to gain by supporting the United States. It is probably also safe to assume that, in keeping with past practice, the leaders of other key countries in the Middle East (especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia) privately applaud strong American action against aggression even if they are afraid to do so in public for fear of roiling domestic and Arab-world opinion against them.

Turkey's apparent standoffishness may indeed reflect a worrisome recent trend in its foreign policy more generally, as well as longstanding concerns over its own Kurdish problem. Of the other major allies, Britain, Germany, and Japan have all voiced support. Only the French, who have their own economic fish to fry in Iraq, have expressed reservations.

But the coalition does appear somewhat tenuous, and that is a cause for concern. The United States should not have to, and probably cannot, contain Iraq on its own. At the very least, the United States will need bases and other facilities in the region from which to operate its armed forces. If it wants to hold the core coalition together, the United States will have to seek consensus where it can and avoid actions that unnecessarily alienate or embarrass its partners. Still, as the events leading up to the Gulf War suggest, a coalition leader must also be willing at times to demonstrate its own commitment and resolve.

Having forgone the opportunity of doing so five and a half years ago, the United States and its allies will not now seek directly and forcibly to remove Saddam from power, and there is nothing in his long and bloodstained past to suggest that he can somehow be tamed or transformed. Saddam is like a shark; he needs to keep moving forward in order to survive. Through its actions of the past week, the United States has hardly dealt him a fatal blow, but it may have further restricted the waters in which he can swim.

Aaron Friedberg is associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

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