The New Tyrants

WHEN Iraq was locked in brutal warfare with Iran for eight years, the neighboring little oil sheikdom of Kuwait funneled some $10 billion from its oil revenues into the Iraqi war-chest. During the same war, the United States declared its ``even-handedness'' between the two parties, but its fear and hatred of Iran caused it to be much more congenial and helpful to Iraq.

In recent days, Iraq has given little indication that it remembers these kindnesses, or is grateful for them.

Iraq's strongman, President Saddam Hussein, has launched an extraordinary campaign of harassment against Kuwait, sending 30,000 troops to the border, and demanding that Kuwait cut its oil production and forgive Iraqi debts.

The aim is to drive up the price of oil - specifically Iraq's own oil - from as low as $15 a barrel to $25 a barrel. That would pose tremendous problems for the oil-consuming countries and especially the United States, which is back to importing half the oil it uses. So much for Hussein's gratitude for past favors.

These events are reminders that while the big-power confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union is daily becoming less tense, there are enough petty tyrants around to make the world still a dangerous place.

The Khmer Rouge, those mass killers of hundreds of thousands of people in Cambodia, are on the rampage again and must be restrained.

Qadaffi, the man whose fingerprints are on terrorist attacks around the world, may have been humbled by American air strikes on Libya, but he is far from done for.

Castro is watching communism disintegrate in the rest of the world, but balking at reform in Cuba. When he is overtaken by the inevitable in Cuba, will he go quietly, or with a dramatic, defiant, violent gesture that brings new upheaval to Central America?

In China, a rigid regime resists President Bush's blandishments to produce a gentler, kinder nation and pursues a dangerously confrontational course with a Chinese generation that wants freedom.

But it is Saddam Hussein who is perhaps the most worrying. He has survived the damaging war with Iran and now seems bent on establishing himself as the hard-line dominator of the Arab world.

He is savagely hostile to Israel, which he threatens to half-destroy with chemical weapons if it attacks any Arab country. Mr. Hussein is not unfamiliar with chemical warfare, which he practiced in the war with Iran.

Iraq has an army of almost a million men (Kuwait, by the way, has 16,000) and Mr. Hussein seems ever-ready to equip it with new and aggressive weapons of war.

All this is disquieting in an area so volatile as the Middle East. The United States, among others, is clearly alarmed. Though there is not much stomach in the United States for another Gulf expedition, the navy put some of its ships in the area on alert and Congress started making angry noises about Saddam Hussein.

Ironically, as Iraq has been reducing tension between itself and Iran in the aftermath of their horribly destructive war, Hussein seems to have become more belligerent to those who cross him - even his old allies. The sheikdoms of the Gulf have reason to tremble.

So, probably, does Saudi Arabia, a country which generally has sought to buy its way out of trouble rather than engage in confrontation. The Saudis may soon find out what the price of peace with Iraq will cost them.

For the United States the lesson is clear. Given declining tensions with the Soviet Union, it can beat some of its swords into plowshares. But it had better keep some weapons handy to back up its diplomacy as it deals with regional tyrants.

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