Don't Misjudge Saddam

Although he has been portrayed as a madman, Iraq's leader does act rationally; above all else, his No. 1 priority is Saddam Hussein

WILL Saddam Hussein withdraw from Kuwait at the eleventh hour, or does he think George Bush is bluffing? Is he a pragmatic survivor, or does he suffer from a ``Masada complex,'' preferring a martyr's death to yielding? As the defiant president of Iraq exhorts his people to prepare for war, the question of what is in the mind of Saddam Hussein dominates our attention. Saddam has been characterized as ``the madman of the Middle East.'' This pejorative diagnosis is inaccurate and dangerous, possibly misleading decisionmakers into believing he is unpredictable when he is not. An examination of Saddam's record of leadership reveals a judicious political calculator who is rational but dangerous.

Saddam has justified the extremity of his actions as president of Iraq by what he calls the ``exceptionalism of revolutionary needs.'' In fact, this is but the ideological rationalization for a lifelong pattern: All actions are justified if they are in the service of furthering Saddam's messianic ambitions. Saddam's primary loyalty is to Saddam Hussein.

Survival in power is the No. 1 priority of the self-proclaimed revolutionary pragmatist. He assuredly does not wish a conflict in which Iraq will be grievously damaged and his stature as a leader destroyed.

In the past, when his actions have proven counterproductive, the pragmatic Saddam has reversed himself. If at the last minute Saddam does withdraw from Kuwait, this will only be a temporary deflection of his unbounded drive for power. He is a patient man. Strategic planners must look beyond the immediate crisis, especially considering Iraq's progress toward acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability. If blocked in his overt aggression, Saddam can be expected to pursue his goals covertly through intensified support of terrorism.

Saddam has made major miscalculations, including his decision in 1980 to invade Iran. These are the result of flawed decisionmaking. Saddam's view of the world is narrow and distorted and he has an imperfect understanding of the West. He has only traveled to the West once, a brief trip to Paris in 1976, and his only sustained contact with non-Arabs has been with his Soviet military advisers. More important, he is surrounded by sycophants who are afraid for good reason to disagree with Saddam, for to disagree is to be considered disloyal and risk dismissal or death.

Nevertheless, the current situation is so grave that in recent weeks several officials reportedly expressed their reservations about remaining in Kuwait. Saddam dismissed or reassigned five senior officials, including the army chief of staff and the Minister of Defense, replacing them with family members and known loyalists.

However threatened Saddam feels, there are significant rewards in his present situation. Throughout his 22 years at the helm of Iraq, Saddam languished in relative obscurity, overshadowed by leaders such as Anwar Sadat and Ayatollah Khomeini. Now Saddam is a world-class political actor on center stage commanding world events. When his rhetoric is threatening, the price of oil rises precipitously and the Dow Jones average plummets. Moreover, he is demonstrating to the Arab masses that he has the courage to defy the West and expel foreign influences - a central value in his Baathist ideology.

Defiant rhetoric has been a hallmark of this conflict and lends itself to misinterpretation. The Arab world places great stock on expressive language and the very act of expressing brave resolve against the enemy. Much of Saddam's language is designed to demonstrate his courage to the Iraqi people and the Arab world. By the same token, Saddam probably hears the Western words of President Bush through a Middle Eastern filter. When a statement of bold resolve and intent is made by President Bush in a public forum, Saddam may well discount the expressed intent to act.

It is extremely important that President Bush not respond to Saddam at the personal level. When Mr. Bush depicts the conflict as the unified civilized world against Saddam Hussein, it hits a tender nerve. Aspiring to be counted among the great leaders of the 20th century, Saddam ranks himself with Castro, Tito, Mao Zedong, and Nasser. If he were to conclude that his status as a world leader were threatened, it would have a constraining effect on him. Despite his dismissal of UN resolutions, the prospect of Iraq being castigated as a rogue nation outside the community of nations threatens Saddam.

Saddam will not easily yield the spotlight of international attention. He wants to remain on center stage, but not at the expense of his power and prestige. Saddam will only reverse his present course if he concludes that his power base will be destroyed unless he does so. This requires a posture of strength, firmness, and clarity of purpose by a unified civilized world, demonstrably willing to use force if necessary, for the only language Saddam Hussein understands is the language of power. It is crucial to demonstrate unequivocally to Saddam Hussein that unless he withdraws, his career as a world-class political actor will end.

By the same token, Saddam will only withdraw if he calculates that he can do so with his power and his honor intact and that the drama in which he is starring will continue. Saddam will not go down to the last flaming bunker if he has a way out, but he will stop at nothing if he is backed into a corner. It is crucial to communicate that our goal is the restoration of the status quo ante, not the destruction of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. If he believes his very survival is threatened, Saddam can respond with unrestrained aggression, using whatever weapons and resources are at his disposal, in what would surely be a tragic and bloody final act.

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