In the high-stakes game of geopolitical chicken in which Washington and Baghdad are engaged, President Saddam Hussein is not going to blink first, according to biographers of the Iraqi leader and others who have studied his character and behavior.
"He can bob and weave, but he becomes dangerous when he is backed into a corner and he can lash out," says Jerrold Post, a former CIA analyst who pioneered political-psychological profiling of foreign leaders.
Adept at tactical maneuvering, determined to retain power, but aware that bowing to the Americans would destroy his self-image as the new Nebuchadnezzar, President Hussein would fight to the end if it came to war, experts say.
In the meantime, as pressure mounts, expect some fancy diplomatic footwork. "Saddam has always been much better with his back to the wall," says Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist who coauthored a recent biography of the Iraqi leader. "Maybe it's because his vanity has been punctured, maybe because he is better at accepting advice."
Hussein's notorious brutality and his mistakes in launching costly wars against neighboring Iran and Kuwait have earned him the sobriquet "madman of the Middle East."
Nothing could be further from the truth, says Said Aburish, a Palestinian writer who once worked for the Iraqi government and who has written an account of Hussein's life.
"He is not a lunatic," Mr. Aburish says. "In fact he is very consistent the most methodical Arab leader of the 20th century." Having set himself a goal, whether it be agricultural development, the perfection of a weapon of mass destruction, or the status of the undisputed leader of the Arab world, he is steadfast in pursuing his purpose. He is also a workaholic, reportedly sleeping only four hours a night.
The Iraqi president has shown that persistence, and patience too, in his efforts over recent years to mend fences with neighboring countries and to cultivate foreign governments further afield.
Showing a much more sophisticated grasp of international affairs than he displayed in the run-up to the Gulf War, Hussein has restored his reputation among Arab leaders he was welcomed back into the fold of the Arab League two years ago and dangled economic incentives such as trade deals in front of key UN Security Council members China, Russia, and France. The effect has been to complicate the creation of the sort of international coalition that he faced in 1991.
The Iraqi leader has always been skilled in domestic politics, with a good instinct for whom to choose as allies and when to drop them. He has showed special mastery of the extreme violence that has characterized Iraqi political life since the British carved a new country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1921.
Hussein first made his mark on Iraqi politics in 1959, leading an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassem. Twenty years later, on assuming the presidency, he had 21 senior officials of his Baath Party potential rivals murdered en masse. On one celebrated occasion in 1982 he interrupted a cabinet meeting to step outside with his health minister, Reyadh Ibrahim Hussain, who had overseen the purchase of a defective batch of penicillin for the Army, says Aburish. The president shot the offending minister dead in an anteroom, then returned to finish chairing the cabinet session.
Such behavior, mimicked by ever- present security forces, has instilled great fear throughout the population giving the president absolute power over his country. "There are no restraints," says Mr. Cockburn. Such power "went to his head," suggests Aburish, pointing out that in his earlier days Hussein was known for not standing on ceremony and for working efficiently on ambitious development plans for the country's oil industry, its transport sector, and its schools.
Twenty years ago, Aburish remembers, government offices were hung with photographs of a small room in a modest village house Hussein's birthplace in the poverty-stricken region of Tikrit. Today, the offices are decorated with grandiose portraits of the president. "It reflects a certain transformation in the character of the man," says Aburish.
Aburish also points to the way Iraqi officials a few years ago stopped using the traditional Arab hug and kiss on the cheek in greeting the president, and instead began kissing his lapels. "That's what you do to a holy man," he says.
Such signs appear to confirm what expert observers have long seen as Hussein's "exaggerated sense of his own heroic role in history," as Cockburn puts it, illustrated by his dedication to rebuilding the ancient city of Babylon even at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.
The Iraqi leader has made no secret of his ambition to build on his deep nationalism to become the undisputed leader of the Arab people, defying the West in the fashion of the late Egyptian president Gamel Abdul Nasser.
Behind the grand vision and the iron fist, however, some analysts suggest that Saddam Hussein might actually be an insecure man. "I firmly believe that the man is shy," says Aburish. "He avoids eye contact, there is no small talk in him," and those who have met him have noted his limp handshake.
"His grandiose facade masks underlying insecurity," Dr. Post, the former CIA analyst, who now teaches psychology at Georgetown University, argued in testimony to Congress before the Gulf War.
That may account for Hussein's intensely secretive habits. The day before the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait in 1990, fewer than a dozen people knew of the war plan, according to Saad al-Bazzaz, who headed Iraqi radio and television at the time. In 1972, when Hussein nationalized the oil industry, he told local industry employees of his intentions only two hours before the official announcement.
That approach probably means that few people even in his inner circle know how he intends to play his hand now. But in Post's view, the Iraqi president sees the weapons of mass destruction he is alleged to control as central to his self-image as a world-class politician.
"Big boys have big toys," says Post. "The chances of his yielding on weapons of mass destruction are between zero and none. But he is quite prudent, and I see no chance of him giving such weapons to terrorists or launching a direct attack on the US," because that would bring catastrophic retaliation from Washington.
Those weapons, if he possesses them, give Hussein a degree of power and he would do anything to hold onto them, since "power is the only language he understands," Post argues. "He is impressive, a very wily guy, a quintessential survivor, and if he can stave off disaster by making a show of open inspections, he will."
But Washington's talk of regime change, not just disarmament, "is backing him into a corner. He doesn't have to be paranoid to think that we are out to get him," Post adds. If Hussein were attacked, "we could reliably predict the use of such weapons [of mass destruction] against Israel and US ground forces."