IN THE PREVAILING Western view, Saddam Hussein is a hero to the downtrodden Arab masses but a loathsome dictator in the eyes of educated, westernized Arabs.
This misreading not only severely understates the Iraqi leader's appeal but misleads the West into minimizing the risks of a prolonged confrontation with Saddam.
The dominant impression of an American businessman just returned from two weeks in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is of an Arab world seething with resentment against the United States, barely able to contain its glee at the prospect of an Arab leader bold enough to defy the greatest power on Earth.
Even among journalists, academicians, professionals and other intellectuals -- in the main educated in America and unabashed admirers and emulators of our culture -- the feeling is strong that Saddam's brazen aggression embodies a long-needed assertion of Arab dignity.
At dinner tables from San'a, Yemen, to Damascus, Syria, over coffee from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to Amman, Jordan, in animated conversation in Cairo, men (and some women) in their 30s, 40s and 50s profess outrage at the violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty by an acknowledged dictator and butcher.
But virtually without exception, in perfect English honed at affectionately-recalled colleges and graduate schools in Kansas or Colorado or Illinois or the Carolinas, nearly all quickly depict the Iraqi president as a political descendant of Gamel Abdel Nasser or even Saladin, embarked on a heroic, albeit doomed, effort to unify an unruly Arab world.
Arab intellectuals readily concede the appropriateness of American intervention (though they quibble over its timing) to protect our vital economic and political interests.
They don't deny the menace of Saddam, whether exemplified by his gassing of Kurds at Halabja, his brutal repression of suspected dissidents or his designs on independent states. Nonetheless, they are still rooting for him to succeed in his Kuwaiti campaign, at least to the point of humbling the colossus that now confronts him in the Arabian desert.
The paradox of enlightened and educated Arabs defending, or at least rationalizing, Saddam's aggression at first perplexes an American visitor. But its basis soon becomes clear.
The seemingly obligatory initial rhetoric focuses on Arab problems appropriately solved by Arabs; irritation at American support for Israel; the struggle for Arab unity; vindication of long-repressed Iraqi territorial claims against Kuwait; or a rightful redistribution of wealth profligately spent by self-indulgent sheiks at the expense of deserving Arabs.
But in time the core explanation of the pervasive support for Saddam's braggadocio in the Arab world invariably emerges: a deep-seated sense of inferiority and persecution.
Proud bearers of an ancient heritage overwhelmed and humiliated by successive waves of conquerors and subjugators, today's Arabs yearn desperately for the dignity and vindication that a Saddam seems to offer. With each passing day in which the mighty West is held at bay, the Islamic world holds its head higher and walks just a bit more erect.
That American military might will in the end prevail is an accepted certainty; equally sure is that the indignity of an American victory will intensify the Arabs' quest for some ultimate, undefined violent vindication.
Among unhappy choices, the implications for current American policy quickly become apparent. With even repressive Arab regimes that support our initiative presiding over seething popular discontent at the challenge to Saddam, early resolution of the crisis is imperative.
Arab leaders (with the possible exception of King Hussein of Jordan) are reconciled to the inevitability of a military solution. In an inherently destabilizing situation, minimizing political damage in the region requires rapid and decisive action; delay simply solidifies indigenous opposition, further endangers our friends (newfound or otherwise) and raises the price of the inexorable outcome.
Harrison J. Goldin is general partner of Goldin Associates, which advises corporations on restructuring.