What makes Saddam run? The latest showdown in a crisis of his own making poses the question with fresh urgency. But it touches only half the problem. The other half is: What has made it possible for him to keep running.
For seven years, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq has led not only Western governments but also Arab regimes and the United Nations system around by the nose. He's a world-class war criminal and genocidal aggressor who has used poison gas against the Kurdish population of his country. He's pursued a concealed program of rearmament with weapons of mass destruction, against the explicit terms of the cease-fire that he accepted after his defeat in the Gulf War of 1991.
Saddam's motivation - clear when he invaded Iran in 1980 - is no mystery. He wants to dominate the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, using its oil wealth to gain leadership of the Arab world. His ambition would be achievable only by weapons of terror used with the uninhibited ferocity he used against Kuwait.
Cruelty is essential to Saddam's governance. He inspires fear with the certainty of swift punishment for even suspected opposition. He's been wrong too often to be credited with high intelligence, but he's survived his mistakes through cunning manipulation of opponents. He has not just cowed his people, he is shredding the fabric of society. The family and the educational system are being destroyed by impoverishment, malnutrition, and corrosive suspicion. Crime is rampant. There's no vitality left for rebellion in central and southern Iraq where his Army has free rein. In the Kurdish north, fratricidal strife keeps the parties busy. Saddam has blamed the people's misery on the embargo imposed on Iraq for ignoring the cease-fire terms.
To keep running, Saddam needs and receives outside help, political and material. The UN's Oil for Food program has authorized Iraqi oil sales to pay for billions of dollars worth of food, medicine, and humanitarian aid. But this entire process is strictly monitored. In addition, Jordan is allowed to buy the oil it needs, and the Security Council chooses to turn a blind eye to enormous quantities of diesel fuel moving into Turkey. Then, there is a busy, illegal flow of barges and small tankers hugging the Iranian coast, under Iranian protection, carrying oil all the way to Pakistan and Bombay, evading the 16-national naval interception force meant to stop them. By conservative estimate, Saddam, who runs these operations, earns as much as $700 million a year. He has used some of it to build palaces as well as to reward the mainstays of his power - the revolutionary guard, security organizations, and the party and military fat cats at the top.
Mainly, though, the money goes for contraband such as Rus-sian gyroscopes for long-range missile guidance, or 4-axis machines used in shaping missile warheads, as well as computers, electronics, chemicals, and such. Hundreds of front companies and joint ventures in Turkey, Jordan, Dubai, and elsewhere can receive these and other, dual-use items and transfer them to Iraq. There is no way to enforce the embargo on land. Iraq's border with Iran is wide open. The UN checkpoints on the Turkish, Syrian, and Jordanian borders monitor the oil-for-food traffic but have no mandate to do more.
The sanctions depend on the rigor with which governments control the export of sensitive products. The record is spotty. On Nov. 1, the day after Saddam's latest suspension of cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, Baghdad opened its largest international trade fair since the Gulf War, anticipating the uncertain time when sanctions are lifted. The US, Britain, and Germany were absent. French, Italian, Russian, and Arab participants stood out among those demonstrating a hunger to trade with Iraq - Saddam and all.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.