WASHINGTON -- When all the other U.S. foreign policy nightmares from Bosnia to Beijing are settled, one man still is there to fill the void: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Defeated and isolated since the end of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the 58-year-old "Butcher of Baghdad" still has enough strength to keep his well-armed neighbors on edge and the United States military at the ready.
Even now, the Pentagon is shipping extra arms and supplies to the gulf, in case it has to react rapidly to new aggression by the unpredictable Iraqi dictator. U.S. intelligence satellites and spy planes keep unblinking watch for any early warning that the elite Republican Guard and the regular army are on the move again.
President Hussein has only about half the conventional forces he commanded in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, and the bulk of the weapons of mass destruction he was secretly developing have been detected and destroyed by the United Nations. Yet he remains a formidable foe credited inside the Pentagon with the capacity for painful surprise.
"We believe they are still trying to hide capabilities in missiles, chemical and, obviously, biological weapons," said a senior Pentagon official who studies Iraq closely. He accused the Iraqis of a "cheat and retreat" policy in disclosing to United Nations inspectors their programs [See Iraq, for develop-ing weapons of mass destruction.
Only yesterday, Charles Duelfer, part of the U.N. inspection team, said Iraq flight-tested chemical and biological weapons, in one case launching a chemical warhead aboard a Scud missile.
"The Scud missile warheads -- flight-tested -- was a new piece of information to us," Mr. Duelfer said. "Testing them is one thing, but a flight test is quite another."
Apart from weapons Iraq may have, the Pentagon is disturbed by the speed with which Mr. Hussein still can deploy his forces, as in the sudden move south toward Kuwait of thousands of Iraqi troops last October.
That prompted President Clinton to order U.S. ground troops, ships and planes to the area, at a cost of many millions of dollars. The Iraqis promptly withdrew.
Again last month, unusual troop movements in Iraqi garrisons led the United States to order extra storage ships of weapons and supplies closer to the Persian Gulf and to make rapid-reaction forces in the United States ready for short-notice deployment.
The fear this time was that Iraq might be preparing a strike against the Kurdish rebels in the north or reprisals against Jordan for granting asylum to the Iraqi dictator's two daughters and their husbands, who had defected.
To show its support of King Hussein of Jordan, after he welcomed the defectors, the United States dispatched an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean and went ahead with slated military exercises that called for a Marine landing in Jordan.
King Hussein's role in accepting the family fugitives and advocating change in Iraq is deemed by administration officials to be crucial to bringing Saddam Hussein's reign of terror to an end.
Under terms of the 1991 gulf war cease-fire, Iraq is required to disclose details of its arms development programs and to destroy all weapons of mass destruction before the embargo on oil exports, which costs Iraq up to $15 billion in lost sales yearly, will be lifted.
Iraqi compliance will be judged by Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish head of the U.N. special commission on Iraq. Mr. Ekeus has reported major progress on disarming the Iraqi nuclear, chemical and missile programs. But, until last month, the Iraqis refused to cooperate on their biological warfare program, initially denying it even existed.
Last month they finally confessed that they had armed some munitions with biological agents before the gulf war, but said they did not use them, apparently fearful of a U.S. nuclear response.
As Mr. Ekeus prepared to leave Iraq last month, he was told by Iraqi officials to go to a farmhouse where, he was informed, Iraqi security forces had found material he should see.
Just days earlier, the owner of the farmhouse -- Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who was in charge of Iraq's secret weapons program -- had fled to Amman, Jordan, with his wife.
Mr. Ekeus was shown dozens of boxes relating to Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological warfare and missile programs.
The sudden decision to hand over the documents, after years of delay and duplicity, is widely assumed to have been simply a pre-emptive strike by Mr. Hussein, anticipating that Hussein Kamel Hassan was about to reveal details of the biological weapons program anyway.
U.N. officials are sorting through the documents to check their validity, a process expected to take up to six months.
If Mr. Ekeus is satisfied that the Iraqis have finally given as full an account as possible of their weapons development and destruction, he will report his findings to the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council will then have to decide whether to lift the U.N. embargo on purchases of Iraqi oil. The Clinton administration has threatened to veto any move to end the sanctions on Iraq.
Ultimately, President Clinton's hope is the same as President George Bush's had to be before him -- that an individual or group in Iraq will get rid of the Iraqi president.
Certainly, all about Mr. Hussein is crumbling -- his family riven by feuds, his dictatorship diminished by defections, his nation sundered by ethnic division, its economy blighted by sanctions, the suffering of his people worsening daily.
But Mr. Hussein hangs in there, all-powerful and apparently impervious to the threats to his survival.
Kana Makiya, director of the Iraqi Research Project at Harvard University, told a recent seminar here: "The issue of Saddam Hussein's demise is no longer really the central question. This regime is on the way out. The question is: How are we going to effect the change?"
For the Clinton administration, this means: Should the United States shift from its policy of containing Mr. Hussein to actively trying to replace him? And with whom?
This would be highly difficult in a country where challenge brings certain death and the slightest dissent invites imprisonment and torture.
Mr. Hussein has allowed no nonfamily heirs apparent to emerge. Only his son, Uday -- who, by all accounts, is as vicious, violent and unpredictable as his father -- appears in line for succession.
"Alienation has become widespread, reaching even into the inner circles of government," Phebe Marr, Iraq expert with the National Defense University's institute for national strategic studies, testified to Congress last month. "And signs of disaffection are spreading."
The Pentagon expert on Iraq predicts that Mr. Hussein will be assassinated within six months by a rebellious middle-ranking officer. He notes the Iraqi dictator has alienated supporters in the Sunni Muslim heartland, his power base, as well as inside his own family.
"One of these persons at some point in the next couple of months will be so driven by this that he will exact personal revenge and shoot Saddam, assassinate him," he says.
Pointing to the defection of Mr. Hussein's son-in-law, he said: "The in-fighting between uncles, cousins, sons was previously hidden. This has made it public. It embarrassed Saddam, and showed to both his people and the region that he is not in full control, not only of his country but his own family."
"It is going to be an Iraqi solution," said the senior Pentagon official. "And we are going to wait and see what it is. Definitely someone is going to get to him."
Inside the White House, however, national security officials caution that the Iraqi regime's overthrow may not be so near.
"He is more off balance, more on the defense now than he has been since the spring of 1991. I don't know whether it will be fatal," said one senior Clinton Iraq policy-maker.
Asked whether the administration's policy was now geared toward ousting the Iraqi leader rather than simply containing him, the White House official said only: "Nobody here would lose any sleep were Saddam not to be the leader of Iraq."