TIME's Weekend Review

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by Chris Taylor

There is a time for the world’s policeman to walk around half-cocked. Indeed, as we discovered in the cruise-missile fests of June ’93 and September ’96, spanking dictators can bring clinical conclusions to potential conflagrations. Call it the short, sharp shock theory of international crisis management.

Then there are other times — Cuba-missile-crisis moments when events threaten to spin beyond even Uncle Sam’s control. Times when the size of your stick must be matched by the softness of your voice. What Washington seems to have realized in the last week is that the current Iraqi crisis falls decisively into the latter category.

After the smooth-talking Tariq Aziz threatened to shoot down U-2s Monday, Clinton opted for restraint by waiting to see if the U.N. Security Council would condemn Saddam. They did. Iraq responded with an angry expulsion of American inspectors that only brought the U.S. and U.N. closer together.

Saddam, of course, saw it as a symbolic victory — and he’ll feel even better if Clinton decided to bomb him now. Short of standing in the streets of Baghdad screaming “come and get me” at passing U-2s, he couldn’t be signaling it any clearer. The reason? It will fracture the international alliance and build sympathy for Iraq in the Arab world. Nothing would give Saddam greater pleasure than to play the butterfly broken on America’s wheel.

Despite sending the big toys to the Gulf, Clinton seems to understand this — and is playing the waiting game. After all, Saddam has a track record of letting his temper get the better of him. Best to let the bully make the first move before giving him the mother of all hidings.