THAT IS HOW the Clinton administration defines the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein: "dangerous, unreconstructed and defiant." So A. Elizabeth Jones, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Congress last week. As analysis, her description is refreshingly candid and accurate. As an evaluation of U.S. policy, it is close to an admission of failure.

Although the administration no longer speaks about it much, Saddam Hussein remains most dangerous as a potential wielder of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Nearly a year has passed since United Nations arms inspectors were even partially free to operate inside Iraq. More than a half-year has passed since those inspectors and monitors were booted out altogether. That milestone is chilling, because it was commonly said that Saddam Hussein could reconstitute some measure of biological weapons capability if left unmonitored for six months.

"We have come to the conclusion," Beth Jones said, that Saddam Hussein "will never relinquish what remains of his WMD [weapons of mass destruction] arsenal." President Clinton's policy in response to that threat, through most of his time in office, was to insist on intrusive U.N. disarmament efforts. Now that the U.N. program has broken down, the administration says it is putting its faith in "containment," in working to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people and in attempting to "change the regime in Iraq."

But these policies, at least as carried out currently, offer little reassurance with regard to weapons of mass destruction. "Containment" seems to have two aspects: economic sanctions on the one hand and Air Force policing of no-fly zones on the other. The former can help impede a major weapons buildup, and the latter reduces Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors. But neither can stop Saddam Hussein from reviving his biological weapons program.

That explains, at least in theory, the change-of-regime plank of U.S. policy: Only removing Saddam Hussein can ultimately remove the danger he presents. But the administration's seriousness in this regard remains in doubt. Despite a $97 million appropriation from Congress to aid the Iraqi opposition, officials say it would be "premature" to offer military assistance. So the United States is providing instead "equipment for the infrastructure vital for the effectiveness of an international political advocacy movement," according to Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state. Whatever that may mean, it sounds short of what would persuade Saddam Hussein to shut his anthrax labs.