SILVER SPRING — IN MAKING decisions about the crisis in the Persian Gulf, it is important that we understand with whom we are dealing. Saddam Hussein is not just like everyone else. He cares about nothing but himself and his own power.
This should be combined with another proposition concerning the distribution of power in Iraq. In that country, policy is determined solely by Saddam Hussein.
A frightening notion can be derived from these two ideas taken together. So long as Saddam Hussein is in power, Iraqi policy in the present crisis will be made as though the fall of Mr. Hussein were as big a catastrophe as the obliteration of the nation of Iraq.
What supports this judgment of Mr. Hussein's character, and the implications of its corollary, his indifference to the welfare of his country except to serve his ambition?
To touch only briefly on the first part of that question, suffice it to say that his history -- the murders and betrayals that brought him to the top; the prolongation of the war with Iran for years after his remaining in power had become the only issue at stake; the full-blown personality cult by which he plays God in Iraq; the brutal destruction of anyone in the country who voices an alternative point of view; the complete insulation of the man from everything except sycophancy -- suggests a psychopath whose narcissistic isolation is so thorough that he lacks the emotional ability to value anything beyond himself.
As for the policy implications, I see three.
First, on the question of sanctions. Many seem to believe that if we wait, the sanctions will start to pinch Iraq and that to relieve the privations of his country, Mr. Hussein will yield to pressure. Thus will the crisis be resolved without resort to violence. That scenario might be plausible for a compassionate ruler, but not for Mr. Hussein. Even if his people are starving, he will have enough to eat, and their suffering will not move him.
Waiting for sanctions to persuade Mr. Hussein seems a futile policy. Unless one believes that more time and more privation will lead the Iraqis to overthrow their dictator, we ought to proceed on the assumption that our choices a year from now will be no better than the choices we face today.
Second, the Iraqi drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Some experts on nuclear weapons have argued, why go after Iraq's nuclear program when we don't go after every other actual or potential nuclear power? Almost half a century of experience, they say, suggests that those with nuclear weapons are deterred from using them.
The possession of nuclear weapons by a country under the absolute control of a man like Saddam Hussein is different from the other cases. Stalin had nukes for a couple of years before he died, but with that exception these weapons have been controlled by governments -- even the oligarchies of recent Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism -- with a vastly greater stake in the long-term survival of their countries.
When Hitler was falling, it should be recalled, he ordered the destruction of Germany. No stone was to be left on top of another. The world would indeed be imperiled for nuclear weapons to be under the control of a man like Saddam Hussein who would regard the complete destruction of his country as no worse than a bullet in his own head.
Finally, there is the question of whether we must make war on Iraq to deal with the threat created by Mr. Hussein. If it is judged that, with Mr. Hussein in power, we would have to go to war to achieve our goals in this crisis, but also that his fall might make war unnecessary, does it make sense for us to be inhibited by American law from going after Saddam Hussein himself?
During the final years of the Cold War, we heard of smart missiles that could carry conventional explosives through the front door of a targeted building. Some of the time, surely we must know where Saddam Hussein is. If Congress is loath to authorize going to war, perhaps it can vote a specific exemption from the legal restraints passed in the 1970s against the U.S. working to kill a foreign leader.
How many lives would have been saved if Hitler had been killed in 1939? How many lives will be lost, on both sides, in a war to thwart the ambitions of this megalomaniac holding sway in Iraq.
Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System.''