What is the level of international resolve toward beating back Sad-dam Hussein every time he acts up? By the looks of it, not very high. No doubt, Saddam is counting on this. Finally, he hopes, the United Nations will decide to appease him rather than risk losing face by constantly having to muster the strength to confront him.

And so, once again, he has barred all U.N. weapons inspectors. While he will continue to allow video monitoring, he won't allow inspectors to act on any violations they may observe.This latest blatant nose-thumbing has caused barely a ripple in the United States, where people seem more concerned with presidential scandals. But the day may come soon when everyone is forced to take notice.

Consider the recent warning from the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. He said the latest standoff may be evidence that Iraq is resuming its nuclear weapons program. While the rest of the world treats Saddam like a gnat that must periodically be shooed away, it may wake up one day to discover he is once again a major threat to world peace.

President Clinton, who was quick to promise after terrorist bombings at two embassies in Africa that the United States would neither forgive nor forget, seems so far to be willing to do both with Saddam. Earlier this year he warned Saddam of grave consequences if he again barred UN inspectors from entering weapons installations. Now the administration is insisting this is problem more for the United Nations than the United States.

As columnist Thomas Friedman noted recently in this newspaper, such inconsistencies serve only to weaken U.S. influence abroad. They also serve to embolden people like Saddam. Like it or not, this is a U.S. problem.

Many arms control experts agree. Absent a willingness by the United States to back the inspections with force, Iraq will not feel compelled to comply.

This is no ordinary display of defiance on the part of the Iraqis. It is by far the most blatant violation yet of the terms in the resolution that ended the gulf war. Iraq has taken the unusual step of releasing videotapes of private official consultations with chief U.N. arms inspector Richard Butler. The tapes apparently have been altered to show Butler abruptly walking out of a meeting Aug. 3.

It is a pathetic effort to sway world opinion. Saddam clearly is not ready to enter the society of civilized nations. He must not be allowed to do as he pleases.