The latest perfidy by Saddam Hussein has got Americans talking about sending the bombers back into action over Baghdad to "finish the job" and get rid of Mr. Hussein. That could be satisfying, but unwise. The distasteful truth is Saddam Hussein may be the best advantage the United States has in Iraq.
When Mr. Hussein's soldiers held a United Nations team last week at an inspection site where it had found proof of Iraq's intentions to build nuclear weapons, it seemed a bold arrogance for the country that lost the war.
But the fact that the inspectors were there, and vigorously sniffing out Iraq's secrets, is one of the benefits of having Mr. Hussein in power. Had he been overthrown and replaced, there is no guarantee his successor would feel any obligation to allow that kind of scrutiny.
The Iraqi president may squirm and squeal, but eventually he has to succumb to the demands of the United Nations, if for no other reason than he is afraid of George Bush. Many Iraqis on the street -- and probably Mr. Hussein as well -- believe firmly the American president is just itching for an excuse to send the bombers back in the air. Saddam Hussein survived it once, but he is not likely anxious to tempt fate again.
Mr. Bush has encouraged that perception. He has made no secret of his opinion of Mr. Hussein. In Turkey in July, Mr. Bush mused to reporters how it would be just fine "if some way they could get him . . . out of there." He has ordered the Pentagon to make plans to ready warplanes and troops for possible action in Iraq.
But Mr. Bush also may have made the cold, cynical calculations of international politics and reached the unwelcome conclusion there are advantages to having the paunchy dictator in power.
Most importantly, Mr. Hussein is the loser of the war. Even his own blustery diatribes tacitly acknowledge his position, as they now are completely devoid of the kind of blood-curdling threats against the United States he regularly spouted before the war. As the loser, he remains under the thumb of the victorious Allies.
Mr. Hussein doubtless will continue to try to avoid keeping the promises of the cease-fire agreement. He balks at the forays of the inspection teams; he drags his feet on repaying the plunder of Kuwait; he shuffles his troops around to hide them from delegations inspecting the plight of the Shiites.
But when push comes to shove, the loser has to comply. Mr. Hussein knows the Allies can enforce the provisions with military might. He will take the Allies to the brink of their patience, but then he will back away.
Last week, Mr. Hussein capitulated to U.N. demands to allow inspections by helicopter, and also sought a way out of the impasse over the detained inspection team. It was what White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater called "a pattern of cheat and retreat."
That will exasperate the West, which remains puzzled at the bully-boy rules by which the thugs of Mr. Hussein's regime operate. Indeed, the United States again may have to use some force to prove its threats remain real. But Iraq will retreat when things get hot.
Having Mr. Hussein in power assures a weakened and compromised leader heads Iraq. It was one of the war's unstated aims to halt the growing ambition of Mr. Hussein to be a regional Arab leader, a Nasser of the '90s. Mr. Hussein's dreams are now --ed. He is the object of distrust and derision among other Arab leaders.
And Iraq's ability to mount a sustained military threat outside its borders is severely hampered by a busted economy. The economy will get off its knees only at the pace the United Nations, through its sanctions on Iraq's oil sales, allows.
Mr. Bush made nodding reference to that leverage in his speech to the United Nations last Monday, when he declared, "we must keep the United Nations' sanctions in place as long as he remains in power."
Finally, there is the problem of who would replace Mr. Hussein. Unless a new leader were a virtual puppet of the West -- and therefore an anathema to his own people -- he might not feel it necessary to honor the cease-fire terms, arguing they were the baggage of his predecessor. With a new regime in power, the world might be inclined to agree. Indeed, instead of paying war reparations, Iraq conceivably could turn to the West asking for money to help it rebuild. It is a well-worn path.
Or, a new leader might not be to the liking of the West at all. Mr. Hussein has held power in part because a mutual distrust among the three main groups in Iraq -- the Kurds, the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims -- about who would replace him.
The West is similarly paralyzed by those alternatives. A democracy in Iraq could replace the Sunni rulers with a leader from majority Shiite party, a group more sympathetic to Iranian fundamentalism than to the West. As one Baghdad observer noted, Mr. Bush did not win this war to create another Iran. Similarly, any change that gave the Kurds independence would alarm their foes -- our allies -- the Turks.
Many in Iraq believe the American president came to exactly that conclusion and decided to halt abruptly the advance of Allied forces at the war's finale, to preserve Mr. Hussein.
The Shiites and the Kurds, who began separate revolutions as the war ended, feel betrayed. Not only did the Allied advance stop, they note, but the cease-fire terms allowed Mr. Hussein to use tanks and helicopters to snuff out their rebellion.
"Why did George Bush not overthrow Saddam?" plaintively asked a 60-year-old Iraqi in Baghdad. "If they would have landed in the Baghdad airport, nobody would have been against him. The only thing I'm angry about is that the Americans stopped."
"The Iraqi leader now survives with the power of the United States," said the Shiite man. "If the American administration wants him removed, he will be. The United States is now the muscle of the world."
But, he concluded reluctantly, "Bush wants him to stay in power. We can do nothing."
xTC All of this neglects the question of what is best for the Iraqi people, now ruled by a man who has shown no hesitation to use murderous force to continue his rule.
We have overlooked Mr. Hussein's treatment of his people before. When he gassed the Kurds with chemical weapons in 1988 during his war with Iran, the United States ignored the act because Mr. Hussein was considered a strategic friend blocking the spread of Iran's power.
Such are the moral shadows of global politics. In that ghostly light, tyrants have value, and our foes are sometimes more useful than our friends.