It did not take long for the new U.S. administration to face its first foreign-policy test. The foe was familiar: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The response, airstrikes, was expected, as was the result: international criticism of the action, few signs of its effectiveness and mounting concern over the failure of policy to counter the Iraqi dictator. The status quo is unsustainable; new approaches are needed. Unfortunately, there is agreement only that the United Nations-imposed sanctions regime must be changed, not on how.

According to Britain and the United States, Iraqi attacks on aircraft patrolling the “no-fly” zones have increased substantially in recent weeks. Reportedly, there was more antiaircraft fire in January than in all of last year. Fears that air-defense systems were being upgraded drove the two countries to act.

Unfortunately, the strikes were less than successful. U.S. officials concede that they were mediocre, with detectable damage on only about 40 percent of the radars. Worse, they were a diplomatic disaster. Although candidate George W. Bush criticized President Bill Clinton for acting unilaterally in foreign policy, the attacks open him to the same criticism. They have been condemned by France and Spain, ostensible allies, as well as by friendly governments in the region such as Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.

Worse, the controversy has allowed Iraq to rally Arabs angry at the U.S. for supporting Israel in its recent clash with Palestine. The last thing the region needs now is more tension; the airstrikes could not have been more ill-timed.

There is the fear that there will be more. On Thursday, U.S. and British planes again hit Iraqi air defenses in the country’s northern “no-fly” zone. U.S. officials worry that Baghdad may try to provoke more retaliation to further discredit the U.S.

It would not take much. The airstrikes are only part of a clearly dysfunctional policy. The other half, U.N.-imposed economic sanctions, are equally ineffective. The sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the wake of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It was hoped that hardships imposed on the Iraqi people would lead to the downfall of Mr. Hussein. This did not happen. They were also intended to prevent Iraq from rearming, particularly with weapons of mass destruction, and again becoming a threat to its neighbors and the world. In this, they have been somewhat more successful, but experts claim it would not take much for Iraqi weapons programs to get back on track.

Still worse, the sanctions have allowed Mr. Hussein to claim that they have killed more than 1 million people. The U.S. and Britain blame Baghdad for the situation, and they are right, but the images of starving children and the fact that the leadership is not hurting have provided Iraq with a propaganda bonanza.

The sanctions were designed to limit Iraq’s sale of oil by requiring that payments go through the U.N. The proceeds would then be spent only on food and medical supplies. Iraq’s oil exports were never really under control, however, and the whole system is unraveling. In November, Syria reopened a pipeline, shut 19 years ago when Iraq went to war against Iran. It is estimated that up to 150,000 barrels are being pumped daily through this pipeline, which is beyond the purview of the U.N. In addition, Iraq has been smuggling oil through Turkey, Jordan and Iran. Offering bargain prices, Baghdad has ample numbers of greedy customers.

A new policy is needed, but building a consensus will be difficult. An Iraqi delegation will meet with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan Feb. 26 to discuss the re-entry of arms inspectors who have been barred from the country since 1998. The airstrikes will not help. With world sentiment swinging in its favor, Iraq will push hard for lifting the sanctions entirely.

At the same time, there has been a distinct shift in U.S. policy. Secretary of State Colin Powell now stresses the importance of arms control in Iraq. There is talk of “smart” sanctions, which would presumably mean lifting the ban on a wide range of civilian products and concentrating on arms and military technology needed to create weapons of mass destruction. More finely targeted sanctions are the goal, but even that will be hard to implement in the face of staunch Iraqi resistance and other governments eager to do business with Baghdad.

The U.S. and Britain will insist on the resumption of arms inspections in Iraq as the price for easing the sanctions. Both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr. Bush consider Mr. Hussein a dangerous man and a threat to regional peace and stability, and rightly so. He is a danger, but that has been true for more than two decades. Sadly, they, along with the rest of the world, have not been able to develop a strategy that denies him the initiative in a volatile region.

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