September 18, 1990|By David Pryce-Jones

REFUSAL TO REFLECT upon the reality of the Arab world leads time and again to being disagreeably surprised by it.

Anwar Sadat's crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, the use of the oil weapon, the collapse of Lebanon and its invasion by Syria, the intifada, Saddam Hussein's attacks on Iran and Kuwait -- all are presented in the West as unpredictable as acts of God. Their perpetrators are thought to be irrational or suicidal. Yet all are a natural part of the Arab social and political order. The violence is systemic, therefore repeating. So strong is the logic of Arab behavior that Westerners are obliged to fall in with it.

According to Arab culture, power belongs to whoever has the will and strength to grasp it. Victory goes deservedly to the strong, while the vanquished and the weak are to be despised.

Force is therefore a necessary instrument, the means by which the would-be leader eliminates his rivals. Once he has become an absolute power-holder at home, he finds some pretext to extend his reach by attacking abroad. Far from being considered a crime, the use of force establishes credentials in a leader, and determines the primacy of his status. So it happens that Arabs come to applaud a leader who is very obviously endangering them.

Western societies are based upon free association, government by consent under the rule of law -- in a word, contract. Contract is incompatible with the Arab concept of absolute power sanctioned by status. The gap between status and contract was perfectly illustrated in the way the invasion of Kuwait was answered by the legalities of the United Nations.

To Westerners, the use of force indicates social or political breakdown, and they can hardly conceive it in any positive connection with leadership and honor. It seems paradoxical that what looks like disorder and violence is actually a form of stability, a constant Darwinian testing of internal and external relationships.

What puts an end to the ambitions of a leader is the arrival upon the scene of another who is more than his match. Communism in its heyday offered an approximation. The alleged class struggle of Nicolae Ceausescu resembled the careerist struggle of Saddam Hussein; Ceausescu's downfall is said to have jolted Mr. Hussein.

Needless to say, Arabs are no more and no less disposed than other peoples to war and cruelty. The historic formula that ''force is the only language they understand'' is not a racist ascription of innate bad character, but a comment upon the absolutism built into their culture. No institutions or political mechanisms, such as genuine representation or free speech, exist to temper or moderate the use of force in a leader. ''L'etat c'est moi'' is the total philosophy of every Arab ruler. Mr. Hussein put it clearly when he said recently that in Iraq the law is two lines on a sheet of paper with his signature below.

If the potential Arab leader is to succeed, he requires a heroic biography. Muammar el Kadafi, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein

and others claim to have murdered with their own hands those who stood in their way. Mr. Hussein is sometimes credited with 22 murders carried out in person. These may well be only rumors or imaginative projections to enhance status.

Yet for these murders -- as well as for ordering the gassing of the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites and Iranians, and for practicing terrorism and waging wars of aggrandizement -- Mr. Hussein can expect support from his culture. Many Arabs, of course, see him as a monster, but many more do indeed think he is making a hero of himself. Even those who fear him are compelled to admire in him an audacity they could not emulate.

Witness the Palestinians. Kuwait had sheltered perhaps 350,000 them, the majority of whom are probably still there. Its university was the last refuge of Palestinian intellectuals, among them some able PLO spokesmen. These Palestinians and their publications are now subject to Iraqi control. Homes, business, savings have been swept away. Tens of millions of dollars in subsidies from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf will not be paid. Palestinians everywhere will be poorer, and their cause has suffered a disastrous setback.

Yet by and large the PLO leadership, and consequently the Palestinian masses, support Mr. Hussein. Calculation counts for less than the recovery of honor and status. They feel humiliated by their history and particularly aggrieved about unjust treatment in Kuwait, Jordan and under Israeli occupation. Since Mr. Hussein threatens those responsible for such injustice, they overlook the fact that he is acting on his own behalf and is certain to retain all spoils for himself.

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