Leading Article: It may not be easy, but we must break the Saddam cycle

Here (barring an improbable change in established behaviour patterns) we go again. Once again Saddam Hussein is defying the United Nations. Once again the Security Council is meeting to decide what should be done. Once again retired generals and sundry other war-gamers throng to TV studios to hold forth about the West's military options. Once again Saddam is talking to his own people about sacrifice and national honour. The odds are that, once again, bombs and Cruise missiles will be unleashed. Pentagon spokesmen will then doubtless proclaim the exercise a total success. Saddam will have "learnt his lesson" and Mr Clinton's approval rating will go up a few points. Sanctions will be reinforced, to the deprivation and distress of ordinary Iraqis, but not of their leader or his henchmen. For a few months, a couple of years if we are lucky, Saddam will stay in his cage. And then, without doubt, the whole cycle will repeat itself.

Surely, reason implores, there must be a better way.

Alas, reason and the unending mess in Iraq are not natural bedfellows. After driving him headlong from Kuwait in 1991, the Western allies quite reasonably expected that Saddam would be overthrown - if not by popular uprising, then at least by a section of his humiliated regime. But it didn't happen. Six years, much CIA plotting and a virtual three-way partition of his country later, it still hasn't happened. In the meantime, what reasonable leader could wish to inflict extra misery on his own suffering people, rather than comply with the UN inspectors, secure the lifting of sanctions, and rebuild his country's prosperity? But Saddam remains in power, to all appearances domestically more secure than at any time since the Gulf war. On present form he will outlast Bill Clinton - maybe even Tony Blair - just as he outlasted George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and John Major before them.

And there is a method in his madness. Increasingly it is us, not Saddam Hussein, who are boxed in. If it does not punish Saddam, the 1991 Gulf coalition will lose face and the dictator has won both prestige and additional elbow room. But each successive missile strike seems less an act of international peace-keeping than vengeful spite. What is more, Saddam is an inextricable piece of the wider Middle East puzzle. Thanks to the intransigence of the Israeli government and the reluctance of Washington to do much about it, defiance of the US is a powerful card for Arab public opinion, for Saddam as well as Hamas suicide bombers, however vile their methods. Small wonder the Americans this time are palpably uneasy about acting alone. If push comes to shove, Britain, propelled by the Blair-Clinton friendship and the dictates of an "ethical foreign policy", will doubtless go along. France, China and Russia, for understandable reasons, may not.

If so, then they are wrong. The Gulf war showed the doctrines of collective security and Mr Bush's "new world order" working at their best. For Saddam to flout the United Nations now and get away with it would show them at their worst. A stake would be driven through the heart of UN credibility. Saddam Hussein remains a blight on his region; not quite an Adolf Hitler, perhaps, but an utterly ruthless leader who has invaded a neighbour, used chemical and biological weapons against both foreign armies and his own people, and would almost certainly do so again, given the opportunity.

If necessary, therefore, the West must use force. But if the cycle of ever-diminishing returns is to be broken, it has to do more. First, a forgetful world needs to be reminded of what it is up against: let the UN lay out detailed evidence of the secret weapons programmes. But, it will be objected, the limited force used thus far has manifestly not stopped these programmes, still less brought about Saddam's downfall: should not the allies do what they did not after the 1991 land war and "go all the way to Baghdad"? But George Bush's objections then are doubly valid today. Now, as then, no obvious alternative to Saddam exists. Now, as then, the American-led invaders would either have to take over the government of Iraq, as an occupying foreign power in the Arab heartlands, or countenance the disintegration of Iraq and even greater regional instability than today.

The second line of attack must be diplomatic, against the legitimacy of his regime. With his every challenge to the UN, and the fevered response to it within the world community, Saddam reminds us that he is Iraq's recognised leader. But why should this be? Why not link his compliance with UN resolutions to his continuing membership of that body? Meanwhile his record of lawlessness and brutality at least equals that of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic in Bosnia - why not treat him as an indictable war criminal, and ostracise every emanation of his regime?

This finally might encourage the putsch against him for which the West has waited in vain so long. It is not much of a solution, and it will take time. But it is the best available.