The United States and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan are squabbling--politely, so far--over the effects of economic sanctions against Iraq. The heart of the dispute is whether the suffering of the ordinary Iraqi people is the result of the sanctions themselves or of President Saddam Hussein's refusal to do what's necessary to get the sanctions lifted.

It's unresolvable, of course--like arguing whether the slaughter of innocents at Waco was caused by the government assault on the Branch Davidian compound or by David Koresh's refusal to surrender.

I'm more interested right now in another question: What do we expect the sanctions to accomplish?

Long ago, when it started to become clear that allied Desert Storm forces had stopped regrettably short of demolishing Saddam Hussein's military capacity, sanctions were imposed to force him to allow U.N. inspectors to locate and destroy Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction." Hussein affected compliance, then defiance. The inspectors were allowed back in--but without producing much sense that anything useful was being accomplished.

The sanctions continue--ostensibly until Saddam complies fully with terms he long ago agreed to. But it isn't at all clear that even compliance would result in a complete lifting of the sanctions. The United States seems to cling to the forlorn hope that the sanctions will provoke an uprising among the Iraqi people, or within Saddam's military establishment, that will eliminate him, thereby solving our problem with that awful man.

Meanwhile, most of the suffering appears to be among those least in position to do anything about it. You suppose they love us for it and hate their leader? The leader, our intended target, surely isn't suffering major deprivation as a result of the sanctions, and I doubt he's fool enough to send his top military leaders to bed without their suppers either.

But if it's an impossible situation for the Iraqi people, it's not much easier for American (and British) leadership. Continuing the sanctions will only increase the suffering of innocents; ending it without Saddam's utter--and utterly unanticipated--capitulation will seem irresolute. And absent some unmistakable provocation (which the Iraqi leader is hardly fool enough to provide), we cannot go in militarily to finish what wasn't finished nine years ago.

And even if he caved completely in order to get rid of the sanctions and the U.N. presence in his land, what's to keep him from resuming his deadly work afterward? Surely we aren't insisting that we have the right to thoroughgoing inspection of every inch of Iraqi soil in perpetuity.

On the other hand, we don't dare be exposed as uttering empty threats.

So we continue the sanctions, cozy up to (and openly fund) dissident Iraqi expatriates and hope to get lucky.

And we argue over who is responsible for the plight of the little people of Iraq. Iraqi children, according to a recent UNICEF survey, are dying at twice the rate they were before sanctions were imposed.

We argue about whether the Americans are hamstringing--or the Iraqis subverting--the oil-for-food program that permits Iraq to sell some of its oil provided it uses the cash for food and humanitarian purposes. We argue over whether Iraq should be allowed to rebuild its petroleum-producing capacity, over whether the Iraqis are illegally exporting foodstuffs while many of their own people go undernourished--about everything except the obvious senselessness and futility of our approach.

And what might be a better approach? I don't know. So much depends on whether we believe Saddan Hussein has the capacity and the intention to launch his weapons of mass destruction against his enemies. If we believe it, then maybe a good deal more than sanctions is called for. If we don't, then a good deal less.

What? Just walk away and leave everything unresolved?

Maybe. Remember how Iran used to be our bete noire? How'd we get out of that one?