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On June 26, President Clinton launched a "limited and proportionate," "firm and commensurate" attack on Iraq for its attempt on the life of George Bush. The point, explained the president, was to "send a message" to Saddam.

Ten days later, Clinton had his response. U.N. weapons inspectors left Baghdad empty-handed after Iraq refused to allow TV cameras at a missile testing site as required under the gulf war cease-fire resolutions.The cameras were to ensure that Iraq tested no missiles with a range of more than 94 miles. One might ask why Iraq should have been allowed any missile testing at all. But the mistakes of the past administration in letting Saddam get away after the war is now a tale too long and sorry to recount.

Bush himself had to deal with the aftermath of his mistakes. He also opted for the proportionate and commensurate response, most notably his parting shot at Saddam seven days before leaving office when he bombed anti-aircraft sites in southern Iraq.

It was far less than the two- or three-day bombing campaign that Bush and the allies had reportedly agreed to in response to Saddam's repeated violations of cease-fire agreements. But at the last minute, Bush changed his mind and went for the usual limited proportionate action.

Bush, at least, had an excuse for his ineffective response. A major attack doing real damage would have been interpreted as an act of mere pique and petulance. Said one administration official at the time, it would have raised the charge that Bush was "motivated to leave the stage with one last gesture of grand machismo."

Clinton has no such excuse. He has been adamant, to a fault, in depersonalizing the U.S. quarrel with Iraq. Moreover, the nature of the Iraqi provocation - the attempted assassination of an American president - made it much easier for Clinton to respond vigorously.

Because the outrage had been aimed directly at the United States, the response required no coalition partners, no Security Council blessing, no lowest common denominator bargaining with the allies.

Our one window of opportunity for a unilateral attack that could set the terms of the conflict with Saddam - and we waste it on a missile strike on a Baghdad intelligence headquarters that disables a few computers and damages a couple of office buildings.

The genius who planned the cruise-missile raid for 2 a.m. did not figure that at that time you might hit a cleaning woman but no intelligence chief. He also didn't figure that because there will always be a missile or two going astray nearby, if you attack in the middle of the night you are likely to hit neighboring women and children in their beds.

In the daytime, the innocents tend to be off to market or to school - it's the bad guys who tend to be at the office putting in a full day of interrogation and torture.

Hence eight civilians died. And no real damage to Saddam's military. This is what passes for proportionality.

One would think that we had learned our lesson from Vietnam where proportionality was the holy grail of our bombing policy. We thought the calibrated response very clever, an introduction of American rationality to the art of war.

Of course, this rationality defeated us, as it allowed the other guys to dictate the intensity of battle. They could ratchet the pain to whatever level they wanted and count on our "proportionate" response.

Yet here we are 20 years later, the gulf war having proved that the way to win at low cost (to yourself) is with disproportionality, and we are back to proportionality again. We have learned nothing. The Baghdad attack was meant to be symbolic. Meaning: ineffective, yet ominous. Saddam did not buy the oxymoron.

Result? First, Iraq brazenly refuses weapons inspections. Then, on July 7, Iraq enters into negotiations with the United Nations for a limited sale of Iraqi oil to allow Iraq to buy essential imports.

Why should Saddam be allowed any oil sales? Money is fungible. Whatever oil-sale money goes to humanitarian needs is money saved for military spending. And Saddam has shown that whatever income he has he will pour into his military.

Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy details the huge military rebuilding already undertaken by Saddam: 400,000 men under arms, 2,200 tanks, 2,500 armored personnel carriers.

Saddam has money to rebuild the factories that produce the T-72 tank, but none, he claims, for infant formula. Enough of this charade. He needs to be told that there will be no negotiations and no oil sales.

And he needs to be shown that if he tries to blow up American presidents or block inspection of his weapons, he will pay a price that will be more than symbolic.