For the third time in a year, Iraq has called a halt to U.N. inspections of its weapons programs. This time, President Clinton's response is more muted, less aggressive.

Unlike before, there's no threat of a quick military strike, no talk of crisis."The United States is hardly saying a peep," said Peter Rodman, a former Reagan administration national security aide who is critical of the Clinton policy on Iraq.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Friday the United States reserves the right to use force against Iraq at a time of its choosing "in response to threats."

The new Clinton approach is to encourage the notion that the problem is Iraq's, not America's, and to resist escalation of rhetoric that could foment a military crisis.

When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused last fall to permit more U.N. inspections of suspect weapons sites, Washington responded by building up military force in the Persian Gulf. It happened again last February. Each time the crisis was defused, and Saddam backed down, but not before the White House threat-ened to bomb Iraq into submission.

Saddam's capitulation included a promise of full cooperation with the inspectors, enshrined in a Feb. 23 "memorandum of understanding" between Saddam and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations.

Despite that, many people - even some inside Clinton's government - concluded that Saddam had gained strength from the encounters.

Then on Aug. 5 Saddam announced a ban on new inspections, and the U.S. reaction was different. The United States deplored the news and deferred to the U.N. Security Council, which did little but call Iraq's defiance "totally unacceptable."

Iraq also has cut off discussions with the U.N. special commission in charge of Iraq's disarmament. Saddam's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said Iraq will answer no more questions about its forbidden weapons, asserting that all the answers have been given.

Result: The United Nations is doing no unannounced inspections in Iraq, although cameras and other monitoring equipment are still functioning at known weapons sites.