Bush and Saddam Look at Conflict With Different Historical Lenses

GEORGE BUSH and Saddam Hussein have taken some very different lessons from history that are shaping the course of events in the Persian Gulf. Many aspects of Saddam's behavior and Arab responses that baffle Westerners make sense when viewed through the frustrations and resentments of Arab nationalism. One result is that victory and defeat may translate differently in the West and the Arab Middle East.

Mr. Bush has used two lessons from American history to explain the Gulf crisis:

Comparing Saddam's aggressive ambition to Hitler's, Bush decided shortly after the Kuwait occupation that any appeasement would lead only to further aggression.

Recalling the frustration of trying to calibrate a limited war in Vietnam, Bush has opted for massive military force unleashed in quick stages.

Saddam came of age in the 1950s heyday of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. As many in Washington are increasingly considering the nature of the expected victory against Iraq and its aftermath, they are considering the lessons of Nasser and Arab nationalism.

Nasser became a rallying figure of legendary proportions across the Arab world after losing a war to Western powers in the Suez crisis of 1956.

If Saddam Hussein survives defeat, he may emerge with larger-than-life status among Arabs simply by having stood up to the American superpower and held his ground.

``The concept of winning and losing may be a completely different concept in the US and the Middle East,'' says Mary-Jane Deeb, a specialist in Middle Eastern politics at American University here. ``From his perspective - the Iraqi perspective - losing militarily does not necessarily mean defeat.''

Saddam has limited his potential as the new Nasser through his history of brutality. His popular respect among Arabs has more of fear than of love.

But in a region that has felt dominated, divided, and sometimes humiliated by Western powers since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Saddam is tapping into some of the same themes of Arab unity that Nasser did.

``It's not working as well because of Saddam's history,'' says Zachary Lockman of Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies, ``but here is someone who has said `no' to the United States.''

The power of the US in the region is particularly galling, since its intervention is seen as heavily lopsided in favor of Israel.

Americans are outraged when Saddam responds to an attack by a US-led coalition with retaliatory strikes on Israel, which is not a party to the Gulf war. But in the streets of the Arab world, these lines are easy to blur.

Popular opinion holds Israel guilty of the same sort of occupation in Gaza and the West Bank that Saddam has undertaken. The US is seen as Israel's sponsor, therefore hypocritical in its massive retaliation on Saddam.

``From the Arab perspective,'' says Dr. Lockman, ``Israel is not an innocent party.''

Arab intellectuals and politicians may see Saddam's linking his invasion of Kuwait to the plight of the Palestinians as a cynical ploy. But in popular opinion, says Dr. Deeb, ``they see the linkage Saddam has been talking about.''

Arab pride and the pride of Saddam himself in his bid to become a major power may combine to make him sensitive to the niceties of how he has been treated by the American president.

``I think they wanted the Iraqi leadership to be taken seriously, to be treated as equals,'' says Lockman, in a point echoed by other Arabists.

ONE Arab American, who withholds his name for fear of appearing sympathetic to Saddam, says that the Bush administration has consistently dealt with Saddam in humiliating terms bound to stiffen his resistance.

``The fact that the US has refused to deal with Saddam has struck him, and many Arabs here and in Europe, as rather haughty,'' he says.

Not that the US need have backed off its positions either, the source adds, but it should have just dealt with Saddam.

This sentiment is a likely source of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz's rejection of a letter from Bush to Saddam as impolite.

Bush, quite intentionally, left Saddam little room for honor from the beginning. He wanted to foreclose any chance for Saddam to claim political victory and enhance his stature.

Bush used a minor vulgarity in promising to kick Saddam out of Kuwait, but the phrase translates as a more humiliating insult in Arabic.

Once the fighting had started last week, the Bush administration introduced the term ``surrender'' into its list of aims in the Gulf.

Dr. Deeb cannot picture Saddam acceding to such a term unless his army feels itself on the very brink of complete collapse. But such a total defeat of Iraq brings its own serious problems.

The Arab American source compares the current crisis to Israel's defeat of Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War. ``The humiliation many Arabs will feel from his defeat will take decades to recover.''

But the Six-Day War also cut into Nasser's credibility as the leader of the pan-Arab dream. A sufficiently decisive defeat of Saddam will likewise undermine his credibility as a defender of the Arab people. So Arab nationalism leaves the allies against Iraq walking a tightrope. Overkill against Saddam will breed more resentment in the Arab world.

Yet Saddam must be defeated quickly and decisively enough so that his status is not enhanced.

``If we win and he loses, he isn't going to be a Nasser,'' says Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. ``If he negotiates a cease-fire in place, he'll be a hero - a disaster for the postwar stability.''

Many Arabist scholars believe that the Bush administration was mistaken in believing that Saddam had not ``gotten the message'' that the US would attack unless he withdrew. Instead, standing up to Americans both diplomatically and militarily may have served his aspirations for raising his stature in Arab eyes.

His test will come, says Deeb, when the ground war begins, since that will be regarded as a more equal fight than the air war now under way.

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