What Keeps Saddam Going and Going

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The tragically comic scenario of Saddam Hussein's incessant defiance conjures up images, albeit trite, of a psychotic Energizer Bunny who knows no boundaries or rules. The bunny's tenacity confounds its adversaries and rallies its advocates, while leaving behind a trail of tears and invective. Saddam is an unusual adversary - driven by an energy source unfamiliar to conventional thinking. His tyrannical resilience, however, illuminates larger questions regarding the contest of will between him and the United States

Saddam's noncompliance with United Nations weapon inspectors likely will result in another US military spanking of Iraq. The results will be familiar: Iraqi civilians will die; buildings will be felled; Arab allies of the US will be further alienated; Russia and France will be miffed; evidence of any nuclear, biological, and chemical weapon technology in Iraq will remain elusive.

And Saddam? Well, he will survive. Each time he survives these imbroglios, he appears to get stronger. Then the US is right back where it started - trying to do a job nobody wants.

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Let's not forget, prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam was a creature of US foreign policy. He was instrumental in containing Iran. But Saddam got greedy and bit the hand that fed him, which in turn caused whole nations great suffering. Seven years after the Gulf War, the suffering continues.

Shortly after the Gulf War, I was part of a public-health scientific team organized by Harvard University staff and others to chronicle the war's impact on Iraq's civilian infrastructure. The team detailed the damage to Iraq's environment and to its public health caused by US-led forces. Unfortunately, the information we brought back was not well heard in the US. It included anecdotal evidence I obtained regarding the release of the chemical agents Tabum and Sarin and their impact on Iraqis and US troops.

The study team also realized that economic sanctions against Iraq picked up where the war left off. More civilians, especially children, have died as a result of sanctions than died during the war. We knew that as long as Saddam remained in power, there would be only a modicum of recovery.

As I hear and read about renewed tensions with Iraq, images from my trip come to mind - in particular the omnipresent murals of Saddam. Enormous billboards depicting Saddam leading his troops into battle, kissing a baby, plowing a field, building a school or hospital, saving the Arabs, praying to Allah. There wasn't a city block where his presence wasn't seen or felt. This crude form of propaganda, which harks back to the days of Caesar, reflects the narcissistic gratification of despotic regimes. It also touches the core of hostilities between Iraq and the US.

Victory often produces hatred in the vanquished. Saddam knows he lost the war, but his honor forbids retreat. Profound rage has emerged as a result of his injuries. Saddam's behavior is reminiscent of Nietzsche's warning that "narcissism is thus not just a retreat but often the prelude to attack." Saddam knows that conflict serves many purposes. It is a cathartic of his rage. It is his chance to humiliate those he envies - in this case, the US. On the other hand, the US has suffered its own narcissistic wounds, since Saddam won't allow us to dictate peace with honor.

In US eyes, Saddam can't be allowed to act out his rage, so we do what we can to stop him. This means more conflict, even though history reminds us that conflict often compounds the problem rather than solving it. Thus, one step forward, two steps back.

In a complex world, we will always have adversaries. Yet in the grip of unreason, we transform our adversaries into evil enemies. How else to explain defeat militarily or the inability to dictate outcomes politically? The narcissistic solution is the compensatory showdown. But here are some other options worth considering:

1. Give Russia and France a greater role in conducting UN weapon inspections. Their experts are just as capable as American inspectors. Since Russia and France are pursing rapprochement with Iraq, they would have to allay US concerns regarding the preservation of inspections protocols.

2. As a bitter but necessary step, pursue relations with Iran. Inroads with Iran will make Saddam think twice. The policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran is costing the US more than it can afford geopolitically.

3. Provide greater specificity on the terms for relaxing economic sanctions against Iraq. Military sanctions need to remain in place. Iraqi civilians are dying. They need someone to blame, and it's not Saddam. Rather, sanctions are making Saddam look like a hero.

4. The more we battle Saddam, the more we alienate our Arab allies, antagonize Syria and Iran, and provide fodder for the creation of a new Arab savior, or "Nasser" - a.k.a. Saddam. This is a very dangerous prospect, one that Israel won't tolerate.

"Dishonor is worse than death," says a god in the Bhagavad-Gita. This is what keeps Saddam going, and going, and going....

* Ross Mirkarimi led two environmental investigations in Iraq in 1991-92. He works for the San Francisco District Attorney's special prosecutions unit.

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